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Know the West

Las Vegas may shoot craps with its water


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.