Is it time for a new approach to municipal water infrastructure?
October 21, 2013 — Las Vegas has long served as a stereotype of human excess: gambling, drinking, sex, all-you-can-eat buffets. But the latest chapter is playing out away from the Strip, in the part of the valley where two decades of booming development have swelled the population to 2 million residents who rely on a dwindling water supply.
Ninety percent of the southwestern U.S. city’s drinking water comes from the Colorado River, impounded behind Hoover Dam in Lake Mead. An extended drought has sucked the lake’s water levels down more than 100 feet since 2000, and the pipes that convey the lake’s water to the city may soon protrude into open air.
If Las Vegas’ excess in trying to support the water needs of millions in a sere valley marks an extreme, its proposed solution — boosting supply through megaprojects — is all too common. To ensure continued water delivery, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which manages Las Vegas’ water supply, has spent the past five years boring a lower feed pipe through rock at a cost of $817 million. And to diversify supply, the SNWA also plans to spend another $3 billion to $15 billion (depending upon who’s counting) to build a 263-mile-long pipeline to bring in groundwater from rural northeastern Nevada.
Other massive water supply projects are being planned elsewhere in the U.S. Seventeen desalination plants have been proposed in California alone, according to the Pacific Institute, a non-governmental organization that conducts research and policy analysis. And Dallas–Fort Worth water authorities recently proposed a series of supply-boosting infrastructure projects that could cost $21.5 billion by 2060, according to Sharlene Leurig, senior manager of the water program at Ceres, an NGO that advocates for sustainable business.
The irony is that all this expense and financial risk may not even be necessary.
“It’s mythology that population growth means increase in water use.” — Sharlene LeurigWater analysts such as Leurig say the persistent impulse to boost supply is an anachronism. Many utilities’ water supply managers believe they need to build new water supply infrastructure because they are using demand forecasts based upon historic use or tied to population growth, or don’t forecast demand at all.
Yet in some places, including southern California, Seattle, Dallas–Fort Worth, and even, yes, Las Vegas, water demand has either plateaued or declined even as population has expanded. “It’s mythology that population growth means increase in water use,” says Leurig. In fact, per capita demand has been decreasing throughout the United States since the 1980s.
Historically humans tended to settle near fresh water; civilizations that relied instead upon extensive engineering to supply water usually faded away or moved on when they used up their supply or a changing environment made their precarious system unstable. Such examples are legion: The Khmer’s Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The Anasazi in New Mexico. The Maya in Central America.
In many cases, megaprojects aren’t sustainable from an environmental perspective. And they can quickly become financially unsustainable.
Yet extensively engineered megaprojects such as the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the immense federal dams that clog rivers across the American West have built the contours of the country we know today. Thanks to water megaprojects, U.S. populations are booming in the driest areas, whereas water-rich communities such as Milwaukee, Wis., on the shores of Lake Michigan are losing people. Without Hoover Dam, Las Vegas would still be a tiny desert oasis. Without the LA Aqueduct, the City of Angels would remain a dusty outpost overshadowed by San Francisco. Millions of people live and thrive in places that are naturally inhospitable to humans.
In many cases, megaprojects aren’t sustainable from an environmental perspective. And they can quickly become financially unsustainable. Utilities that pursue water supply megaprojects do so at some risk because they can have unintended consequences, says Leurig. For one thing, even if a city genuinely needs new supply, megaprojects can stimulate new population growth and further exacerbate supply tensions — much as new highways beget more traffic.
The Las Vegas water utility has already run into trouble with its new pipe from Lake Mead — known locally as “the third straw.”Ironically, megaprojects can also reduce demand and thereby undermine the fiscal integrity of the utilities building them. This occurs when the rate hikes required to pay off the project become an economic driver that encourages water consumers to conserve.
The Las Vegas water utility has already run into trouble with its new pipe from Lake Mead — known locally as “the third straw.”
Ratings agencies downgraded nearly $2 billion of debt in 2011 amid declining water revenues, according to a December 2012 report from Ceres. Similarly, Moody’s put Colorado Springs’ water utility on watch for a possible downgrade for awhile in 2012, thanks in part to a nearly $1.5 billion capital program to funnel water from the Arkansas River, a tributary of the Mississippi.
Desalination plants are at risk of fueling this cycle because they produce particularly expensive water. A $158 million plant in Tampa Bay, Fla., completed in 2008 at $40 million over budget, is being undermined by lower-than-projected demand and cheaper alternative water sources, according to a November 2012 Pacific Institute report on desalination plant financing. As a result the plant often operates below capacity, yet water customers must still pay for it on their bills.
Another desalination plant permitted for Carlsbad, Calif., is facing substantial opposition, even though ground has already been broken and construction begun, due to ongoing concerns about escalating water bills, energy demand and environmental impact. High costs — ballooning from $300 million in 2002 to nearly $1 billion in late 2011 — and the availability of less-expensive alternatives have brought into question the wisdom of project financing.
So, what are those less expensive alternatives? Chief among them are conservation and reuse.
Cheapest by Far
Conservation is actually a source of water — and it’s the cheapest by far. An analysis in San Diego County [PDF] found water conservation and efficiency cost from $150 to $1,000 per acre-foot, whereas desalination costs $1,800 to $2,800 per acre-foot. And there’s plenty of water available in the conservation bucket: The average American uses more than twice as much water [PDF] as the average Frenchman, Austrian, Dane or German, according to a 2006 U.N. report.
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