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Know the West

How low will Vegas go for water?


Patricia Mulroy, the manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has acquired a certain notoriety among Western water groupies for her hard-nosed approach to Colorado River water politics. But now, she may be winning new renown for setting records in a sort of how-low-can-you-go aquatic limbo.

The Water Authority currently pumps water to 1.7 million people in the Las Vegas area from two intakes in Lake Mead. But the drought on the Colorado River, which started in 1999, threatens to lower the reservoir’s water level below the pipes. Last year, Las Vegas spent $6.5 million to extend one of the intakes by 50 feet (HCN, 4/26/04: Drought forces Las Vegas to reach deeper for water).

But, says Mulroy, if the river sees "a couple more years like 2002" — when Colorado River flows were just a quarter of normal — "life gets ugly." On April 19, the water authority committed to building a third pipe to slake the city’s thirst. The new intake will reach 200 feet deeper into Lake Mead than the city’s two existing intakes. "This isn’t increasing the amount of water," says Mulroy. "This is increasing our ability to take it when we need it."

The cost of the project? A cool $650 million. That money will come primarily from existing funds, but may also require increasing water rates and charging more to hook up new homes and businesses. Meanwhile, the Water Authority is moving forward with a massive $2 billion project to pump groundwater from three counties in rural eastern Nevada and send it to Las Vegas (HCN, 9/13/04: A water-and-wilderness bill kicks up dust in Nevada). That project would go into operation in 2015.