Las Vegas may shoot craps with its water

  • Southern Nev. Water Authority plans to build second pipeline from Lake Mead

  • to Las Vegas

    Kit Miller/LightHawk photos
 

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.

Larry 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.

Paulson 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 taxes.

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 Authority.

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 1999.

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.

Davids fighting Goliath

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.

Paulson says 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 River.

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 straws.

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 AIDS.

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 again.

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 it.

"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 irresponsible."

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 quit instead.

"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 away."

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 Wash.

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 machine.

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 system.

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 vote.

Jon Christensen reports from Carson City, Nevada.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE ASSOCIATE
    Job Announcement: Environmental Justice Associate Announcement date: June 18, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: July 13,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE
    Job Announcement: Communications Associate Announcement date: June 18, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: July 13, 2021...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Wild Public Lands (COWPL), based in Basalt, is an exciting nonprofit working to keep public lands open and accessible. Our growing organization is seeking...
  • BUSINESS SUPPORT ASSISTANT (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time business support assistant to provide...
  • SOCIAL MEDIA AND DIGITAL ADVERTISING SPECIALIST
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening for a full-time Social Media and Digital Advertising Specialist. This position...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....