I-Team: Water Authority's Stance on Desalination Plants Criticized

Desalination has been called the wave of the future -- an endless supply of water for the parched Southwest. But unlike neighboring water agencies, the Southern Nevada Water Authority isn't riding the wave.

Local water officials have come up with several reasons why desalination won't work in the immediate future.

SNWA boss Pat Mulroy declared in 2005 that desalination would play a big part in Nevada's water future, but things have changed now that the future is four years closer.

"It's not just cost, the biggest problem with a desalting plant is we're going to have to take water out of the Colorado River and trade with California. And now that's just more Colorado River water susceptible to the drought. Desalting does not solve the drought problem," said SNWA General Manager Dick Wimmer.

Wimmer capsulizes his agency's now familiar mantra about desalting technology -- it will be wonderful someday, he asserts, but not now. Instead, the authority's focus is on its proposed system of pumps and pipelines to suck groundwater from under rural Nevada and whisk it back to thirsty Las Vegas.

The alternative, building a desalting plant on the Pacific Coast then trade for California's share of the Colorado River, would not work the agency says, because it would cost too much and California would never go along with it.

"They're not going to let us build a pipeline through L.A. Now you're talking about cost," said Wimmer.

But California officials have said for years that they would go along with such a plan and that they want Las Vegas to dive in to the desalting pool.

"There are areas where there are no rivers, where there are arid climates, they've been doing it for decades. And as you see it's getting cheaper. It's getting easier to deliver," said Dave Potter with the California Coastal Commission in 2005.

When asked what the most influential reports are in forming SNWA's current policy on desalination, they produced reports from California that estimate the cost of desalination would be between $800 and $2,000 per acre foot per year. That was several years ago. Since then, new technologies are causing the cost of desalination to plummet.

Using SNWA's own numbers, the pipeline would cost about $950 per acre foot per year, and that cost is continually rising. But instead of calculating that in, former water planner Mark Byrd says the water authority has ignored what Mulory called the inevitability of desalination as they continue to blindly promote their pipeline.

"California has been looking at desalting for a decade. In fact, a plant is in a construction phase now. Three or four years ago, they were looking for buyers for the water," said Byrd. "Presumably, the water authority could have contacted them and bought into the water, which would have been far cheaper than a 300 mile pipeline to nowhere -- which is what I now call it."

Instead of looking for ways to make it happen, SNWA is using taxpayer dollars to pay for newspaper ads proclaiming that the hope of desalting plants solving water shortages is "fiction" and that maybe desalination will be an option one day in the distant future.

"I don't think they know the cost. I don't think they know the technology. The technology works. Again, there is a wind power desalting plant on Perth, Australia. Spain is pursuing wind power desalting. They use the force of gravity, water flowing downward, to be the energy source to power the desalting plant," said Byrd.

Another idea would be to use Nevada's best natural resource, the sun, by building a solar plant and shipping the energy to California to run the plant.  And the technology continues to improve. Last week a company filed a patent to start making energy efficient forward osmosis desalination plants, which the company says would cut the cost of supplying power by 70-percent.

One reason environmentalist's opposes desalination is brine that the plants produce. But ranchers whose water SNWA wants to take ask if brine would destroy more of the environment than sucking the water out of a large swath of rural Nevada.

Rural Nevadans like Hank Yogler thinks the groundwater grab will decimate their environment and wipe them out. SNWA has already promised that desalting plants will be useful in the future, so, the rurals ask, why not start now?

"I mean, could somebody draw them a map of the Pacific Ocean? Do we need to be a third world country when it comes to rehabbing water. I have a friend that spent 30 years in the Navy. His job every morning was to get up and make 100,000 gallons of potable water, and they can't find the Pacific Ocean," said Hank Vogler.

SNWA says California's water plans are what they look at when deciding the viability of desalination. The Golden State has formed a desalination task force within it's water department and there are two dozen desalination plants operating there, with at least another 30 in some phase of design and construction. Worldwide there are more than 7,500 desal plants in operation. But in Nevada, nothing.

"It's political and lack of will, and maybe the fact that Nevadans invested these hundreds of millions of dollars on the ranches, so they feel compelled to continue this scheme that was developed over a decade ago," said Byrd. "The fact that Arizona, California, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and a dozen countries around the world are investing in desalting tells us something."

Byrd has been touting the advantages of desalination to local water officials since 1991. They've never shown an interest in exploring the option, he says, only in explaining why it won't work.

Ocean water is essentially infinite. The rural water grab would tap groundwater from an area already in the grips of a decade-long drought. Studies show that groundwater could be sucked dry in as few as 10 years, meaning the billions spent on the pipeline would be wasted.

"So we have a pipeline to nowhere and 10 years after they build it, there may be no water in the pipeline to nowhere. Nevada should be looking at a long term, infinite water source, which is desalting," said Byrd.

If SNWA had taken Byrd's advice in the early 90's, it could already have water security. Instead, it recently invested in a small, 40-year-old desalting plant in Yuma, Arizona.

"This is a fabulous technology. It is only going to improve as more and more nations are pursuing it," he said.

Byrd thinks a deal could be worked out with California, with Nevada supplying solar-generated electricity to a desalting plant on the Pacific Coast.

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