Water wars, drought go against authority’s flow

It wouldn’t be the first time I was accused of going against the flow.

Fallout, or maybe runoff is a better term, from a recent column on the dream of a Southern Nevada whose water challenges are secured by planning ahead and securing large-scale desalination facilities continues. Southern Nevada Regional Water Authority officials made it clear they’re proud of their record of conservation and the reuse through “return flow” credits. They assure skeptics and others made skittish by decades of listening to experts predict a parched future for Las Vegas and the West generally that they have a handle on the complex issue.

Desalination isn’t necessary now, and even under most scenarios wouldn’t be economically viable for several decades to come. So from the sound of things, I am all wet for imploring water officials to explore investing in desalination as a viable long-term partial solution to Southern Nevada’s water challenges. Hey, it wouldn’t be the first time.

But I also notice something the experts may not be seeing. As it turns out, you readers appear to like the desalination idea far more than the water authority’s multibillion-dollar backup plan to pump and pipe millions of gallons from rural Nevada to Las Vegas spigots.

I continue to receive reams of response on the topic, including some academic studies that are downright intriguing to this untrained eye.

Longtime attorney and ornery progressive Kermitt Waters has studied desalination for years and has tried to get the issue on a ballot question. Following the lead of California’s first desalination plant in Carlsbad is a great place to start, but Waters — the irony of the name is impossible to ignore — thinks there’s an answer even closer to home.

Piping salt water to the flagging Salton Sea would make a fine site for an inland desalination plant. (The Salton Sea is 115 miles from the Sea of Cortez.)

“They’re complaining about the lack of water in the Salton Sea,” Waters says. “That would be the place to discharge it. … Nobody seems to be doing anything but digging a deeper straw out there at Lake Mead. … If we’re just sitting there waiting on the weather to change, I think it’s a dangerous game we’re playing.”

He calls desalination “the ultimate, permanent solution,” and he might be right. But in today’s dollars it’s also an expensive alternative to pumping and piping groundwater — until you factor in the potential for years of legal headaches and the assorted scandal that so often attaches itself to long-range government construction programs. Then the cost is relative.

“If we don’t get on with desalination, then we’re just putting patches on and Band-Aids on,” Waters says. He calls the technology associated with desalination vastly improved in recent years. It’s more efficient and cost-effective, he asserts. “A lot of the arguments you’re getting against it are 10 or 15 years old.”

At present, however, no one in authority has bothered much to argue the case for or against desalination. It isn’t necessary, experts believe, and won’t be for many years.

But the wellspring of voices who favor it over exploiting rural groundwater is getting louder.

From the look of things, many of you are watching the West’s ongoing water wars and the seemingly endless drought conditions and are going against the flow, too.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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