LAS VEGAS, Nev. - An opinionated scientist and a vocal group of senior citizens are trying to stop the juggernaut of growth here. So far, they haven't had much effect. Las Vegas keeps on booming.
But they've raised the specter that
the city may be fouling its water supply.
Paulson is a biology professor retired from the University of
Nevada-Las Vegas, and Ken Mahal is the president of the Nevada
Seniors Coalition, a group of about 250.
is a liberal Democrat who listens to Howard Stern; Mahal is a
staunch Republican who listens to Rush Limbaugh. Paulson says,
"This has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with the water
we drink." Mahal says the bottom line is
They are not major political players in
Las Vegas, but in the past year they have become vocal and highly
visible participants in the endless public debate about how much
more Las Vegas can afford to grow. And they have become a major
thorn in the side of the powerful Southern Nevada Water
The agency has just completed a second
pipeline from Lake Mead. This expanded ability to take water out of
the Colorado River is intended to replace a grandiose scheme to
pump underground water from 20,000 square miles of rural Nevada
(HCN, 2/21/94). The 12-foot-diameter pipeline will double the
city's ability to suck water from Lake Mead and pump it four miles
through the River Mountains to the city's treatment plant, which is
also being expanded. The total cost of the expansion is projected
to be $1.7 billion.
Patricia Mulroy, general
manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, worried publicly
that if opponents kept the new pipeline from being built, the Las
Vegas Valley will need to ration water to existing homes and
casinos and shut down new construction by
Paulson and Mahal's immediate goal was to
stop the new pipeline. That pits them against the political power
structure of Nevada, which is lined up solidly behind the Southern
Nevada Water Authority.
The pair see themselves as
biblical Davids against nefarious developers, politicians,
agencies, and even some get-along-go-along environmentalists
involved in a conspiracy that makes the plot of the movie Chinatown
seem simple. Paulson and Mahal say the pipeline, which was
completed this spring, is bigger than need be. They charge that the
water is destined to benefit fat-cat developers like Summa, the
corporation once owned by Howard Hughes, and the Arizona-based
developer Del Webb, both of which are building sprawling suburbs on
the fringes of the Las Vegas Valley.
that pipelines are being planned and built to serve major land
exchanges that are turning public land on the fringes of the valley
into subdivisions. He also says the release of water from Glen
Canyon Dam to create floods in the Grand Canyon last summer (HCN,
7/22/96) was nothing more than an ecological "masquerade" for a
water grab that moved 700,000 acre-feet of water from the upper
basin to the lower basin states on the Colorado
But the loudest alarm that Paulson and
Mahal have sounded is their claim that the Southern Nevada Water
Authority is ignoring a potential public-health disaster by putting
a "second straw" into Lake Mead downstream from the city's sewage
treatment plant. Paulson says the city's existing pipeline is
already sucking up polluted water from a treatment plant that
discharges effluent into Las Vegas Wash, which drains from the
valley into Las Vegas Bay in Lake Mead. He says a plume of
contaminated water flows from the bay toward the city's drinking
water intake pipes, which are 150 feet below the surface of Lake
Mead just outside the mouth of the bay. The plume floats on the
surface in the summer, when the bay is warmer than the lake. But in
late winter and early spring, when the water in the bay is colder
than the surface of the lake, the plume dives into the lake, moving
like a sluggish river within a river right past the city's drinking
People have already died from drinking
the water, Paulson says, and the second pipeline will increase the
danger. In 1994, 37 people infected with HIV died during an
outbreak of cryptosporidiosis, a disease caused by cryptosporidium
parvum, a tiny one-celled protozoa commonly called "crypto." The
protozoa causes diarrhea, fever and vomiting. Healthy individuals
are able to fight off infections but scientists say ingesting just
one microscopic "crypto" egg could kill a person with
An investigation by the Centers for Disease
Control concluded that the most likely source for the "crypto"
outbreak was tap water but at such a low level of concentration
that none has ever been detected in Las Vegas drinking water.
Paulson and Mahal say it's only a matter of time before it happens
One city discharges
"They're trying to create some public outcry
because our intake is downstream some six miles' from the sewage
treatment plant, says the district's chief engineer, David
Donnelly. "But that's the case throughout the United States. On the
Mississippi, one city discharges and another takes it in. Whatever
river system you're on, you always monitor
"Lake Mead is one of the most pristine
systems in the United States, and we've never detected any problems
with this plume," he continued. "We monitor for crypto. We've never
detected it in our water."
Donnelly says he
would be remiss if he didn't build more capacity into the water
system now. "They should fire me if I ever went into the lake and
didn't make the hole (the new pipeline) big enough. It would be
Ken Mahal sees it differently.
"If I were a shareholder of a company and you spent $2 billion on a
plant and you didn't have the resources, the CEO would be fired
..." So far, Mahal and Paulson have concentrated on inundating
public officials and the media with statements and electronic news
clipping featuring their protests. "On my computer, I have one
button to send 67 letters," says Paulson. "That's how we keep up
with these rascals."
For Mahal, an architect who
moved to Las Vegas when it was "a fun, quirky town 15 years ago,"
this is a battle against the "gambling hall operators and
developers' who are "destroying the community (and) giving nothing
back." For Paulson, "this is a vindication for my life and career."
Paulson studied Lake Mead limnology for 20 years
as a field biologist with the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. When
the university asked him to teach biology to pre-med students, he
"I've been told, "Paulson, you
don't know all the things involved with running a complex river
system or water supply," "''''he said. "I'm tired of being told,
"Go away, don't bother us with this problem." I'm not going to go
But even Howard Hughes, who helped Las
Vegas take off in the 1960s, found it impossible to keep Lake Mead
water from flowing through Las Vegas taps. In 1968, he urged Gov.
Paul Laxalt to kill the project: "If it becomes known that our new
water system is nothing but a closed circuit loop, leading in and
then out of a cesspool," Hughes wrote, "our (competitors) will
start a word-of-mouth and publicity campaign that will murder us."
A Lake Mead water-quality forum has been set up
to study contamination of Las Vegas Bay, and this summer the
National Park Service will post signs warning people to avoid
contact with the water near the Las Vegas
Bad publicity has never fazed Sin City for
long. So far, Paulson and Mahal have managed to raise a stink, but
they've been unsuccessful in slowing the Las Vegas water
They have become the most urgent voices
in a chorus of people concerned about growth in the Las Vegas
Valley, from local environmentalists to city planners, the mayor,
and even casino mogul Steve Wynn, who recently told a gathering of
business executives and civic leaders that Las Vegas is in danger
of losing its allure because of unregulated growth. Now Paulson and
Mahal are trying to defeat a bill in the Nevada Legislature that
would allow Clark County to raise the local sales tax by 1/4 cent
to pay for the expansion of the Las Vegas water
But the bill appears headed for passage.
It has been amended so that any county can raise local sales taxes
to pay for infrastructure without a popular
reports from Carson City, Nevada.