Community Water Report - Protecting our water future

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By Bob Weesely

Water supply is certainly the primary obstacle to Las Vegas’ economic growth and economic health.

The Las Vegas Community Water Board, an all-volunteer organization, has been closely tracking the city’s water operations. In light of the political rhetoric over the past several weeks, we decided to report the facts about the city’s water behavior, as we see them.  

In this two-part Optic series, we’ll describe the city actions to-date, and indicate what good each of the nearly two dozen actions will do.

The city must reliably deliver water to its customers well into the foreseeable future, water which is in sufficient quantity, of acceptable quality and in a cost-constrained environment.

The city water system is both ancient and insufficient for its current size. The system has suffered from decades of deferred maintenance and a substantial reduction in legally allowed river diversions. As a result, the city administration inherited a system that’s dangerously close to failure – periods where the city is unable to deliver water to all customers.

Risk areas for failure are:
• Reliable delivery – insufficient storage, facility decay, single points of failure.

• Sufficient water – too few rights, insufficient wet water at sources, leakage and other waste.

• Acceptable quality – distribution pipe configuration, barely adequate treatment plant.

• The future – aquifer drainage and dwindling river flows.

• Cost constraints – limited income base to meet costs, and limited federal/state sources for funding.

More problem details exist, but the real issue now is how to reduce the likelihood of failure. Recently the city has taken many important first steps to address the critical water delivery problems. They include:

• The 40-year plan. The city has developed a plan called the “Preliminary Engineering Report,” or PER, of remedial actions addressing the entire water system. Almost every part of the system is flawed. The PER plan calls for 11 actions to be taken within five years, and others in a 5-20- year time frame, and a 20-40- year era.

The utility’s website has an introductory presentation and the seven-page PER executive summary available at http:// www.lasvegasnm.gov/uafall.htm. The entire PER is viewable at the Utility Department.

• An accounting system. The city is installing and testing a more modern accounting system which will allow the utility to establish semi-automatic checking for billing accuracy, leak detection and water rate fairness.

• Large-user conservation. To reduce the draw by institutions on the city’s limited water supply, the city passed a water conservation ordinance. It requires the large water users to develop and implement strong water conservation plans.

• Water rights. The city continues to acquire additional valid Gallinas water rights as they become available from willing sellers. The city has increased its water rights portfolio by about 5 percent.

• Illegal water taps. Some water users are not properly registered on the utility’s books for billing. The city is pursuing a program, to identify those undocumented taps, understand their history and legality, and then take fair and appropriate action. The city has identified 70 such taps, has been provided historical information on 60, and is close to taking appropriate remedial actions.  

• Storage system. The city owns two reservoirs, Peterson and Bradner, and rents 2.5 percent of Storrie Lake. Together, Peterson, Bradner, and Storrie can hold only about 140 days of Las Vegas’ historical usage. The city has been conducting negotiations with the Storrie Project people to increase the city’s rented capacity in Storrie Lake. To date, those negotiations have not been successful, but the city continues to seek a mutually beneficial partnership.  

• Stability analysis. Because of concern for the 100-year-old structure, the city performed an engineering stability analysis on Peterson Dam. The result was that immediate failure is unlikely, but that flood overtopping or an earthquake could result in catastrophic failure. This analysis data will help in seeking funding for long-term remediation.

• Peterson Dam. The 100-year-old reservoir dam leaks and has questionable structural stability. The city is now in the final stages of contracting for the detailed engineering plans to repair and raise the dam, thereby stopping the leak and increasing the days of storage. The city has $7 million of grant applications submitted, lobbied for, and actively in evaluation by the potential funding sources.

• Pump-back system. The city loses approximately 8 percent of its allowable river diversion by the leakage through Peterson Dam. The project to capture that leaked water and pump it back into the city’s system has been stalled by endangered species requirements, but now appears ready for construction bidding.

• Training and operations. The city determined that no instructions, procedures or policies existed for regulation of the two dams whose flows and storage quantities the city regulates on a day-to-day basis. The city developed operations and maintenance manuals for those dams.

• Aquifer capability measurement. In December when the city’s reservoirs were approaching 100 percent of its mere 4.5-month supply of water, the city stopped its pumping Taylor Well No. 4. The contract to observe and analyze aquifer recovery rate will tell the City just how much water per year the City could draw without aquifer drainage.

Here we have described a dozen city actions that have been taken or are in process. We’ll report a dozen more next week. These and next week’s actions together are but a small step toward fixing our water situation.

Major additional actions, as identified in the PER, are still needed.

Bob Weesely is vice president of the Las Vegas Community Water Board. He may be reached at 505-454-0555 or wessely@sciso.com.