Recycled water key to valley's growth
In the drought-stricken West, any source of water is precious. In Las Vegas, even treated wastewater is becoming a more valuable commodity.
Not everyone might embrace the idea of the recycled water, a product of the urban area's sewage stream, providing sustenance to the region's grassy areas, but it is already part of Southern Nevada's portfolio of water sources.
Officials from across the region say that because of the drought and continued population growth, treated wastewater will only be more important in the future.
The water is treated to remove biological and chemical contaminants, and local officials say it is safe for use outdoors, to play in and to come into contact with people. Recycled water, they say, mitigates the Achilles' heel of the local water system, an increasingly vulnerable weakness during the drought: More than 60 percent of the region's water use goes to irrigation.
A patchwork of local agencies is responsible for bringing recycled water.
The Las Vegas Valley Water District is the largest, providing 10 golf courses with the treated water for irrigation last year. Las Vegas, which has three treatment plants, gives water to the water district and to three golf courses operated by local developer Billy Walters.
The Clark County Water Reclamation District sells water to Nevada Power for generating electricity and two golf courses. Henderson sells water to eight golf courses.
All of the providers have different rates ranging from the water district's current $1.85 per 1,000 gallons to Las Vegas, which sells water to Walters' Stallion Mountain and Royal Links courses for 23 cents per 1,000 gallons.
In the middle is the water reclamation district, which sells water based on a formula that comes to about $1 per 1,000 gallons. The reclamation district board -- the Clark County Commission -- is scheduled to consider raising that rate to $1.35 on Tuesday.
Marty Flynn, reclamation district spokesman, said other changes on the table at the 9 a.m. meeting in the commission chambers could be more important and help the reclamation district and its partner, the Las Vegas Valley Water District, sell more recycled water.
The increased rate will enable the reclamation district to bring infrastructure to new potential customers such as the Clark County School District, he said.
"The old rules have been that the customer essentially comes to us," Flynn said. "The new rules would allow us to bring the water to where the customer is. We can go beyond the traditional power plants and golf courses to parks, cemeteries and the other big users."
The move by the water reclamation district, which would go into effect July 1, comes two weeks after the Las Vegas Valley Water District raised its rates for recycled water from $1.69. Water district officials said they needed to raise the rates to balance the agency's costs for delivering water to its customers, who aren't using the volume of water that the district once anticipated.
Those golf-course customers pointed out that one reason they aren't using the water in the anticipated volume is that they have followed the water district's instructions to reduce irrigation during the drought.
Despite the reductions, local water officials say that in the long term, more irrigation must be done with recycled water. Richard Wimmer, deputy general manager of both the water district and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which brings wholesale water to the region for the local distributors, said a primary reason is that the authority is planning to bring more groundwater into the local system.
The authority now gets about 90 percent of the region's water supply from Lake Mead. Water from the lake can be treated and returned to the lake for "return flow credits." For every gallon of lake water returned, the federal Bureau of Reclamation allows the authority to draw up an equal quantity above its basic allotment.
But groundwater taken from other areas cannot be returned to the lake for the credits, which makes it more important that as Southern Nevada's water portfolio expands, more uses for the treated and recycled water from wells are found, Wimmer said.
Recycling the water also has environmental benefits because less waste water goes into the Las Vegas Wash and it saves the water agencies money because less water has to be pumped uphill from Lake Mead, he said.
"It is extremely important in the long run that we start being more aggressive aboout reusing water," he said. "We're going to ultimately have to look at any large irrigation projects."
The use now is relatively paltry. The water district, the largest supplier of recycled water, sold about 6,000 acre-feet of water to its golf course customers last year -- about 2 million gallons. The region annually uses about 400,000 acre-feet, one-quarter of that from return-flow credits.
Richard Goecke, Public Works director for the city of Las Vegas, said his agency sells about 548 million gallons, or about 1,700 acre-feet, annually. But the three treatment plants operated by the city produce about 24,000 acre-feet of treated waste water daily annually. So there is a lot of room to grow.
He noted that the water agencies are already supplying Southern Nevada's golf courses with recycled water, but they are the relatively easy customers to find and serve. Others will come, he said.
"As the drought continues, reuse water is going to gain greater acceptance," Goecke predicted. "That will open up opportunities for greater use."