The green grass and fountain-like sound of water under most any other circumstances would be welcome, a serene oasis amid the parched land that Las Vegas residents have become accustomed to.
But as Gov. Susana Martinez stood at the site — the base of Peterson Dam — she used words like “ridiculous” and “disgusting” as she watched hundreds of gallons of the city’s drinking water spill out onto the ground from holes in the 101-year-old concrete structure.
“I didn’t realize that the dam leaked in so many places,” she said as she walked along its perimeter, staring in disbelief at the water trickling out.
Martinez, who was in Las Vegas to tour the dam and speak to city officials about the city’s water situation, seized on the opportunity to blast state lawmakers for failing to make the dam a top priority. Indeed, she used the dam as an example of what’s wrong with the state’s current capital outlay process, the way that so-called pork dollars are doled out by state senators and representatives.
“I frankly think your legislators should pull their money together. ... They need to just pull their money together and quit doing these little, itty-bitty, 10-percent funded projects,” Martinez said, suggesting that area lawmakers earmark their capital outlay dollars in the upcoming legislative session for the work that needs to be done at Peterson.
“I think I proposed $2 million in capital outlay for Las Vegas for the Peterson Dam (during the legislative session earlier this year) and a total of $16 million statewide for the repair of many of our dams,” the governor said. “I think I got about $200,000 ... for the repairs of dams in the state. They don’t see the urgency or they want to spread the amount of money to many itty-bitty projects that haven’t been vetted, haven’t been prioritized, aren’t fully funded.”
Using this past legislative session as an example, she said a lawmaker in Doña Ana county earmarked part of his capital outlay money for a drinking fountain for dogs at a dog park, and she said San Miguel County lawmakers tried to spend part of their capital outlay dollars — $205,000 — on a West Las Vegas weight room, a project she vetoed. She said that’s not how capital outlay dollars should be spent.
“The people of Las Vegas have to start putting pressure on their legislators to do the right thing,” she said. Martinez said she is willing to propose $2 million for Peterson again during the upcoming session, but she added that, ultimately, the Legislature holds the purse strings.
Area representatives and senators in the past have been reluctant to devote all of their capital outlay dollars to a single project, in part because they represent multiple counties and earmarking all of that funding to a single community could have political repercussions.
But Mayor Alfonso Ortiz told the governor that, politically, the upcoming legislative session might be a good time for area lawmakers to do it, given that the elections will be over with.
The Optic was unable to reach Sen. Pete Campos Thursday morning. Tomás Salazar, who beat Rep. Richard Vigil in the June primary and is unopposed in the November general election, said he plans to ask the governing bodies in the communities he represents to prioritize projects. He said that from his perspective, Peterson Dam needs to be addressed, and he said that very well may be the priority project that emerges out of San Miguel County.
Built in 1911, Peterson Dam is losing about 60 million gallons of water a year through leaks. Engineers have also concluded that the dam is at risk for failing.
It’s current maximum capacity is 211 acre feet, a small fraction of the water the city uses in a year.
Consultants have recommended that the dam be raised to provide the city with 1,200 acre-feet of additional storage. The estimated cost of the project is about $20 million.
Peterson Dam has become the symbol of the city’s dilapidated water infrastructure, but much of the system is in need of an overhaul.
All together, the cost of improvements to the city water system recommended by city consultants is estimated at about $120 million over the next 40 years.
Of that amount, the preliminary engineering report, which serves as a roadmap for the city’s water system, identifies $53.6 million in projects that should be tackled over the next five years.
The city is already planning significant water rate increases to secure the money to pay for most of the Phase 1 projects.
Utilities Director Ken Garcia told the governor that rates will likely be hiked by 26 percent during the current fiscal year, by another 26 percent in the 2013-14 fiscal year, then another 26 percent during the 2014-15 fiscal year and by 7 percent during the 2015-16 fiscal year.
For a person living inside the city limits who uses 6,000 gallons a month, the increase will be 266 percent. For a customer using the same amount of water but who lives outside city limits, the total increase will be 333 percent.
Garcia noted that the average household water use in Las Vegas is actually 4,000 gallons a month.
The increased rates will allow the city to tap into $45.7 million in bond funding for water projects. That would be enough to finance many of those Phase 1 projects, though not all. The city has also been seeking grants, and it has already received several.
City officials on Wednesday told the governor they need an additional $10 million in state and federal funding to help bridge the gap and to decrease the rate increases being proposed.
The governor said it’s not right that Las Vegas water customers are facing 250 and 300 percent water rate increases to take care of something that capital outlay funding should have been taking care of all along.
Martinez stopped short of saying that the city should delay implementing rate increases, but she said it shouldn’t give up on capital outlay funding.
Martinez also used her visit to Las Vegas to take shots at federal environmental laws that are making it more difficult to address the Peterson leaks. Garcia said that because the leak has created a wetland, the city is now required to maintain it.
He said the wetland determination was made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Rebuilding Peterson will take at least two years. In the meantime, the city will begin a $380,000 project in October to recapture most of the leaking water and pump it back into the system. He said that because of the wetland issue, the city has reached an agreement with federal officials to let 5 percent of the amount of water that is now leaking through to maintain the wetland.
He said an environmental review that was conducted on the pumpback project determined that the wetland is habitat for a bird called the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.
“It makes absolutely zero sense,” the governor said of the wetland designation. Garcia told the Optic the wetland designation isn’t likely to kill the larger project of rebuilding Peterson, but dealing with the additional requirements will be very time consuming and could be costly.