Vegas Water Agency Proposes New Lake Mead Drilling

September 09, 2013

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Water officials in Las Vegas are making plans to fast-track a $12 million Lake Mead drilling project to ensure the region will be able to draw a steady drinking water supply from the shrinking Colorado River reservoir. The Southern Nevada Water Authority tunneling job this winter would extend the life of the oldest and shallowest of two existing intake pipelines the community now uses to draw about 90 percent of its water from the lake, according to a Las Vegas Review-Journal report.

In a Thursday memorandum to water authority board members, General Manager Pat Mulroy called it vital for the new project to start immediately and be finished next year, in time for use in 2015.

"Postponing the work on the connection will jeopardize the water supplies available for the next year," she said.

The emergency work comes amid projected delays in completing the so-called "third straw" project — a 3-mile tunnel through which the city of some 2 million residents and tens of millions of tourists will be able to draw water from one of the deepest parts of the lake east of Las Vegas.

That $817 million project began in 2008 and is about 18 months behind schedule after several setbacks, including a fatal construction worker accident in June 2012 and flooding in 2010 and 2011 that forced the contractor to change the tunnel direction.

Without the work, officials say Intake No. 1 and its pump station could become inoperable if the surface of Lake Mead drops another 40-45 feet. Federal water managers expect that to happen by June of 2015, but say it could happen sooner if there is another abnormally dry winter.

That would leave the Las Vegas area with only one working pipe and one pump station at the lake, officials say.

The expedited plan will go to the board for a Sept. 26 vote in the form of a change order to an existing contract with Texas-based Renda Pacific. The general contractor has for three years been digging a half-mile-long, $52 million tunnel to connect the region's existing water Intake No. 2 with the planned third intake.

If the board approves, Renda Pacific would spend about seven months drilling and blasting a 110-foot vertical shaft from the Intake No. 1 pump station to the connector tunnel that the contractor is finishing 400 feet underground near the shore of Lake Mead.

The work will require Intake No. 1 to be shut down, temporarily capped and drained, so authority officials want it done during the winter months when water demand is lowest.

"That's why the emergency," Jensen told the Review-Journal. "Every week is precious at this point if we want to get it done this winter."

Waiting a year to do it would run the risk that the lake will shrink enough to shut down Intake No. 1 before work gets done.

Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that Lake Mead would receive its smallest annual water delivery ever because of a sudden dip in Lake Powell fueled by the second-driest year since drought hit the Colorado River in 2000. The same reduced release is expected the following year as well, barring an enormously snowy winter in the mountains that feed the river.

Forecasts call for the surface of the reservoir to hit 1,075 feet above sea level by April 2015, triggering the first federal shortage declaration on the river and prompting water supply cuts for Nevada and Arizona.

Officials say the lake level could continue to drop low enough to shut down Intake No. 1 if the proposed emergency connection isn't made.