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Crazy Straw: How Las Vegas will get water despite the drought

<p style="text-align:right;">The Southern Nevada Water Authority leads the Review-Journal on a tour of the third intake tunnel.</p>

The Southern Nevada Water Authority leads the Review-Journal on a tour of the third intake tunnel.

<p>A Vegas Tunnel Constructors worker prepares for new concrete slabs to be put in place behind the boring machine as the Southern Nevada Water Authority leads the Review-Journal on a tour of the still under construction third intake tunnel taping the water of Lake Mead outside of Las Vegas on July 31, 2013.</p>

A Vegas Tunnel Constructors worker prepares for new concrete slabs to be put in place behind the boring machine as the Southern Nevada Water Authority leads the Review-Journal on a tour of the still under construction third intake tunnel taping the water of Lake Mead outside of Las Vegas on July 31, 2013.

<p style="text-align:right;">The &amp;#8216;bathtub ring&amp;#8221; is seen behind Hemenway Harbor on Lake Mead in Nevada Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2013. The ring shows the previous lake levels. </p>

The &#8216;bathtub ring&#8221; is seen behind Hemenway Harbor on Lake Mead in Nevada Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2013. The ring shows the previous lake levels.

Las Vegas — a city carved by human determination from the inhospitable harsh, dry desert — gets 90 percent of its drinking water from Lake Mead.

Without Hoover Dam, which created Lake Mead more than eight decades ago, Las Vegas would not exist, at least in its present form.

But what if we suddenly couldn’t get our drinking water from the lake? What if the surface — which has been dropping precariously for years — fell below the two existing “straws,” that draw water from the lake uphill to thirsty Las Vegas?

That was the dilemma that the Southern Nevada Water Authority contemplated, and its solution was unique: Dig another straw, not to a point in the side of the lake, but deep underneath it, a point so deep that falling water levels would not threaten the community’s water supply for the foreseeable future, if ever.

Not only that, but the water in the deepest part of the lake is cooler and cleaner than water near the surface, water that may be contaminated with treated effluent or algae.

But the project isn’t cheap. In fact, it’s one of the most expensive, most ambitious public works projects ever attempted in Las Vegas.

Digging the third straw

Platoons of miners began blasting and digging five years ago, a tunnel extending more than 300 feet underneath the lake, using a massive, cylindrical drilling machine designed in Germany specifically for this project. It bores into earth and rock, spewing earth out on a conveyor belt like a giant worm, eating its way to its destination. The concrete third straw is built in its wake.

Building that destination was also a challenge. First, the lake bottom itself was excavated. Then, an army of 143 barges and 1,000 trucks forced concrete into the depths to form a kind of dock for the tunnel-boring machine, which should reach that spot in 2014. When it does, the third straw will be flooded, and thirsty Las Vegas will get its water.

There are three contracts and hundreds of workers on the project. The first contract was for a preliminary, 500-foot tunnel finished three years ago at a cost of $32 million, according to Erika Moonin, the water authority’s engineering project manager. The second section of the project is a 2,500 feet extension of the tunnel by Renda Pacific. The cost was $52 million, $10 million over the original bid. The authority is preparing to ask its board on Sept. 26 for an addition $12.2 million — and another 15 months — to finish.

Costs for the largest portion of the project by Vegas Tunnel Constructors, Impregilio S.p.A. and SA Healy are estimated at $489 million so far, $42 million above the original bid.

Add it all up, and the price tag comes to $817 million, not including a pumping station that will keep water flowing to the valley once the project is done.

Only two companies submitted bids for the major portion of the Las Vegas tunnel project: Traylor Bros. Inc., and a joint venture including Italian firm Impregilio S.p.A.

“There are not too many of these (tunnel) projects,” said Mike Roach, chief estimator for the Underground Division of Traylor Bros. There are also not a lot of companies that can do it, he said. At $558 million, Traylor’s bid was $100 million more than Impregilio’s $447 million. A $100 million difference in bids on these major projects is “not common … but not uncommon either,”

Roach said, adding that he didn’t know what made the $100 million difference.

Moonin, the authority’s project manager, does: “They [Impregilio] had a different proposal for how to build the intake that didn’t require grouting and a slightly shorter schedule, which decreased their cost. They excavated the hole instead. Very innovative approach,” she said.

And it may come just in time: The first intake, or “straw,” in the parlance of water managers, will be useless once the lake’s water level hits 1,050 feet above sea level. Currently, Lake Mead sits at 1,100 feet above sea level, perilously close. The second straw will go out of commission at 1,000 feet above sea level. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimated in a December report that there was a 19 percent chance of needing to shut down both intakes by 2041.

Bronson Mack, a spokesman for the water authority, wrote that the lake level will have to drop to 950 feet above sea level before water quality becomes an issue for the new third intake. “And if the lake is that low, there are a host of other issues on the river,” he adds.

Mack’s boss, water authority General Manager Pat Mulroy, says the intakes are only the beginning of the problem. “Everything starts falling apart at elevation 1,000,” Mulroy said on a recent edition of KNPR-FM 88.9’s State of Nevada program. “Which is why, for our planning purposes, 1,075 is such an enormous trigger. This is going to come as an enormous wake-up call.”

For the time being, the second intake can handle the current needs if the first pumping station goes out of service. “A longer term replacement for the lost pumping capacity of (pumping station 1) is needed if lake levels remain below 1,050 feet,” Mack wrote, adding that pumping station No. 3 is supposed to be the replacement, and it will cost ratepayers another $245 million to complete that pumping station.

Mack and Moonin say SNWA considered many options to deal with falling lake levels 10 years ago before settling on the third intake. Still, consideration of other options raises questions among the public and even the water authority’s board members.

“I don’t even know what all the options were,” said board member and Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak. “I asked if they could have laid a pipe on the lake bed surface. I was told that this was the most reasonable option even though it is expensive.”

Mack wrote that all the options were assessed by various water purveyors in the valley. Those options, according to Moonin, were extending an existing intake, exploring various intake locations and even sending a floating barge out on to the lake to draw in the 600 million gallons of water per day for the thirsty city.

“You would have to have pumps that were adjustable that sit on the bottom of the lake and supply power out to the barge,” Moonin said. “It was just huge. You have to consider the extent of wave action. We ruled that out at the extent that we couldn’t get the capacity we needed.”

They considered an overland pipeline to a better spot to get water, too.

“Those were ruled out.” Moonin said. “The overland pipeline had a lot of environmental constraints. That ends up being pretty costly at the length we were looking at. One was at least 50 miles. We did look for other projects that were similar.”

For comparison, Utah’s Division of Water Resources is in the final design phases the Lake Powell Pipeline. It includes 139 miles of 36-inch pipe, an intake, two pump stations, power station and restoring the surface of the land. The cost: $786 million. There are two other segments, totalling more than 30 miles, one of which includes a pump station and pushes the cost to $1.06 billion.

That cost is nearly exactly the same as the authority’s three-mile third intake, if you include the deferred pump station. The difference is that the Lake Powell Pipeline can only carry 77 million gallons per day. Nevada’s third intake can carry 600 million gallons per day, more than eight times the capacity of Utah’s project at close to the same cost.

Recently, the authority has begun to emphasize the urgency of the tunnel project based on a Bureau of Reclamation report in August that said falling water levels in Lake Mead could knock out the first intake as soon as 2015.

While first and second intakes are still serving the needs of Las Vegas, and will for an unknown amount of time, “when I think back, I think it was good to make decisions we did,” Moonin said. “We thought we could lose first intake relatively soon and so we expedited the project and the location of the (new) intake itself.”

Political money pipeline

The construction manager for the third intake is Parsons of Pasadena, Calif., which has handled projects in Nevada since 1993. The company’s major projects in the valley include the $650 million Veterans Administration hospital and consulting on the 215 Beltway/Sunset Road improvements.

According to secretary of state campaign records, Parsons has contributed to local politicians involved in the oversight of the tunnel project it manages. On March 22, it gave $5,000 to authority board member and former North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck. Parsons’ gave twice that amount to Sisolak, just three days before Sisolak would vote on a $20 million increase in the company’s contract. At that meeting, Sisolak made the motion to approve the staff’s recommendation and the $20 million for Parsons was a done deal.

“I was aware I got a donation from Parsons, but not aware of when it was,” Sisolak said. “You don’t get a check the day they write it. When you run for office, you accept an awful lot of donations. People are always coming before you. I have never let a contribution affect a vote that I have made, nor will I in the future.”

Parsons spokeswoman Amber Thompson sent CityLife an e-mail response regarding the donation: “Parsons is a long-time member of the Las Vegas community, and as such, we support the local community by participating in both community-oriented and political events and activities.” She said the donations were fully legal, but, despite requests, did not address the timing of Sisolak’s check in relation to his vote on the $20 million change order.

Sisolak said he was not influenced by the donation. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Staff’s recommendation would have influenced my vote. I do not abstain from votes because of campaign contributions.” Sisolak says he raised more than a million dollars in 2011 in preparation for a run for re-election in 2012; Parsons’ contribution was less than 1 percent of his total raised, he said.

Paying the bill

The partial costs to ratepayers for the third straw will become clear starting Sept. 26. The authority’s Integrated Resource Planning Advisory Committee — formed in the wake of public outrage over the last round of rate increases — is expected to present recommendations for how to pay for the $817 million project.

“It will be very interesting to see how those rates are apportioned to everybody,” Sisolak said. “It will be a lot of money.”

The committee’s proposed recommendation is to increase the rates over the next seven years for residential customers from 30 cents per 1,000 gallons to 48 cents. A typical household that uses 150,000 gallons, for example, would pay an extra $27 a year — but that’s not the only increase.

Under the infrastructure charge, households with a typical size water meters would see bills go up $5 a month in 2013 and more each additional year until 2017, when the authority would add $3.11 to the monthly residential bill, for a total increase of more than $100 a year by 2017.

Nonresidential users with larger connections and meters could pay much more. The largest meters, of 10 inches or larger, would see monthly increases of almost $2,300.

In July of last year, the authority issued a report by an independent consulting firm detailing payment options that could range in increases of $5 to $10 per household per month.

Meanwhile, Las Vegans have been getting more frugal with their water, using 29 billion fewer gallons last year than in 2002, even though population went up by 400,000 over that same time.

“So, population went up and consumptive water usage went down,” Mack said.

But conservation can only go so far. At some point, Las Vegas needs its water to survive and thrive as a community. For that, you need more water. And for that, you need another straw.