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George Knapp: Drink up, the water’s fine

<p>George Knapp</p>

George Knapp

WHEN I READ in the paper the other day about mysterious foamy gunk floating around in a section of Lake Mead, and about the hundreds of dead carp floating nearby, I knew it was only a matter of hours before someone over at the Southern Nevada Water Authority would whip out one of their handy-dandy, prefab, all-purpose PR statements to assuage all fears and unfurrow all brows.

Weird, fish-killing mystery foam isn’t much of a challenge for the spin-meisters at SNWA. I probably could have written the release myself, based on years of watching water officials find the silver lining in every bloated carp carcass or every pair of cement shoes holding a corpse secure on the bottom of the lake. There is no such thing as a contaminant in Lake Mead water. Never has been. Never will be. So drink up, Las Vegas.

Sure enough, a day or so after the most recent fish kill, SNWA spokespersons issued the all-clear bulletin, letting us know there is no cause for concern because the fish probably died because of a virus or infection, possibly caused by rising water temperatures. Oh, and that weird foamy stuff might have bubbled up from out of the decomposing remains of all those dead carp. No problem, folks. Drink, drink, drink.

I would probably feel a bit better about drinking tap water from the lake if I hadn’t heard so many similar statements from our water officials in years gone by. SNWA and the Water District have spent millions over the years on touchy-feely TV commercials that assure all of us how great our water tastes and about all of the incredibly rigorous tests which are conducted thousands of times each month to ensure that every drop is perfectly safe.

Somehow, those thousands of tests failed to detect the presence of massive quantities of perchlorate in Lake Mead, a potentially toxic poison that had been leaching into lake water for decades. The reason locals found out about it is because officials in California discovered high levels of perchlorate on lettuce and other produce in the fields. They eventually tracked the contamination to its source — the Colorado River — and then backtracked some more until they found that the perchlorate originated on the shores of Lake Mead. Funny how California officials were able to figure it out, but SNWA somehow missed it all those years.

I also remember working on a story about contamination of the lake with something called cryptosporidium, which is believed to have killed several people here back in the ’80s The source of the contamination was never identified, but once again the public was assured that our water is perfectly safe.

Not that long ago, the principal responsibility for testing our water for contaminants fell to scientists who did not work for the water agencies. They conducted tests independently, without interference from SNWA bosses — the same bosses who worked hand-in-hand with developers and casinos owners to make sure that Southern Nevada’s gigantic growth engine kept churning. For years, UNLV had its own lab and conducted independent tests of water quality and pollutants. But the water bosses didn’t always like the results. Somewhere along the line, SNWA decided it would be better for the public if all the testing of water quality was done in-house, under the direct control of the rah-rah, pro-growth cheerleaders who run the show.

Remember when the carp at Lake Mead started turning into he-shes? Scientists discovered this disturbing trend back in the early ’90s. Male carp and other fish started — no kidding — turning into hermaphrodites. They started developing male and female reproductive systems. One theory is that urban runoff, including pharmaceuticals and fertilizers from Las Vegas, were causing genetic changes in the fish. Nothing to worry about, SNWA said. Take a big gulp of that clean water and just hope you fellas don’t get an urge to wear panty hose.

I have no idea whether the current batch of gunky foam is perfectly benign, as SNWA is telling us — benign except to all those dead fish, it seems — but I would be more inclined to believe such statements if the people who do the water testing did not work directly for the myopic political animals who run things, the same political animals who have spent billions of public dollars over the last few years in pursuit of water projects that seem more like personal vendettas than wise public policies.

But please, don’t let me stop you. Drink up. It’s perfectly safe.


A release from Cox Communications announced days ago that long-time Communications Director Steve Schorr will leave the company “by the end of the year,” adding that Schorr is leaving the company’s PR department “in the hands of a wonderful team.” The release makes it seem as if Schorr is happily skipping off into a land of gumdrops and rainbows. After his 25 years as the public face of the company, I seriously doubt Schorr is leaving voluntarily, especially at this point in his life. Friends say Schorr’s wife and son are both facing deadly health challenges, and that the last thing Steve needed was to be without a job. Schorr isn’t one to complain, but this stinks. … Scott Lewis, the former airport officer for the Nevada Taxicab Authority who was fired after complaining about a lack of enforcement regarding long-hauling by taxi drivers, is not quite finished. Lewis has been battling with the state for more than four years because, he says, he was fired on the basis of trumped-up charges because his bosses didn’t want him to make waves about long-hauling. The recent focus on long-hauling in local media is a direct outgrowth of the ball that Lewis started rolling. Last week, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that he should get one more bite at the apple because he has yet to receive a fair hearing. … Fresh off his huge win in the Harvey Whittemore prosecution, assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Myhre has been handed yet another high-profile case: the fraud charges against Family Court Judge Steve Jones …

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.