Las Vegas Views Desalination as Potential Water Source

Published January 1, 2006

Seemingly endless disputes among Southwestern states regarding the allocation of Colorado River water may be less intense in the future if some government officials in Las Vegas and southern Nevada have their way.

To quench the water needs of rapid growth in the Las Vegas metropolitan area, water managers are looking into building one or more desalination plants on the California coast.

Water Disputes Are Common

Water disputes have become common in the arid southwestern United States, especially over the region’s only major river, the Colorado River. As the human population in the region continues to grow, it creates growing demand for Colorado River water.

“The only factor that acts almost as a pressure relief valve is large desalting facilities,” said Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy, quoted in the October 23 Las Vegas Sun.

Without direct access to the Pacific Ocean, the Southern Nevada Water Authority is looking into funding desalination projects in and for California. California, it is hoped, would in turn assign a corresponding amount of its Colorado River quota to Nevada.

“After five years of drought, it is apparent we need more diversity of water supply,” said J.C. Davis, spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “We need to develop long-term solutions, and desalinated water can be one of them.”

Serious Obstacles Exist

On the surface, the idea seems like a win-win situation for everyone involved. However, there are potential obstacles.

Desalted water is significantly more expensive than water drawn from lakes, rivers, and underground aquifers. The premium can be anywhere from 40 percent to 100 percent, depending on local conditions and economic factors.

Additionally, while many environmentalists applaud desalination plants for alleviating stresses on inland water sources, others oppose desalination plants for increasing the salt content of seawater in the plants’ discharge areas.

Florida Environmentalists Divided

In the Tampa Bay, Florida region, where the proposed construction of a large-scale desalination plant was debated and ultimately approved in 2001, a local group called Save Our Bays, Air, and Canals (SOBAC) bitterly opposed the plant. SOBAC claimed desalination plant discharge water would make the bay’s water too salty.

The Audubon Society and Sierra Club, however, supported the plant, arguing saltwater discharges would have little effect on Tampa Bay. “It’s just such a drop in the bucket when you compare it to the total quantity of water in the bay,’ said the Sierra Club’s Lynn McGarvey.

The desalination plant was approved by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Tampa Bay water authority and is currently under construction.

“While the economic costs of desalinated water are relatively high, it certainly has a positive impact on inland water tables,” observed Sterling Burnett, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

California Support Uncertain

With those competing interests in mind, the California Coastal Commission, which has power to block any desalination project, may not approve proposals put forward by southern Nevada officials. The commission has approved 11 desalination plants to date, but each is relatively small compared to those envisioned by southern Nevada officials.

The 11 desalination plants produce a total of 3,300 acre-feet of water per year. Anatole Falagan, assistant manager for water resource management with the Southern Nevada Metropolitan Water District, foresees the region funding up to 150,000 acre-feet of desalted water per year by 2025.

“I think you have a real, real hard thing to fight to get the California Coastal Commission approval on this,” Glen Peterson, director of the Southern California Metropolitan Water District, told the October 23 Las Vegas Sun.

Nevada Seeks Mutual Benefits

Southern Nevada Water Authority officials remain hopeful they can draft a plan that would benefit both California and Nevada.

“We have yet to discuss the issue with California officials, but we have discussed it internally in conceptual terms,” said Davis. “A mutually agreeable proposal for an environmentally responsible desalination plant would be very encouraging.

“A desalination facility would provide Southern Nevada with a water option beyond our limited Colorado River allocation,” Davis explained. “It would not be a silver bullet, but it would be a welcome and viable component of our overall water strategy. This is more of a long-term solution than short-term fix.”

Davis emphasized the Southern Nevada Water Authority is not interested in funding a desalination plant unless the plant could be built and operated in an environmentally responsible manner.

“The key issues are: Where do you build it, how do you provide power to it, and how do you discharge the brine?” Davis observed. “Marine life tends to be particularly sensitive to changes in salinity. Nevada would not overlook environmental issues, and is as committed to a healthy Pacific Ocean environment as we are committed to our Nevada environment.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.