Las Vegas Looks to Santa Barbara for Share of Pacific Ocean Water


In this torrid desert playground where tourists pursue jackpots in shaded, cool casinos, Patricia Mulroy dreams about using the Pacific Ocean to water local lawns.

Mulroy is general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, which serves most of the metropolitan area's 850,000 permanent residents and the 20 million tourists who flock annually to this gambling center.

She has opened negotiations with officials of Santa Barbara, on the California coast, in an effort to secure a share of water from that city's recently built desalination plant.

"Las Vegas is fascinated with the concept of accessing the ocean," Mulroy said.

And Santa Barbara is interested in finding customers for the nation's largest seawater desalination plant, built last year on a crash basis because of a severe drought. While the plant was being constructed, however, heavy winter rains filled local reservoirs along the Southern California coast.

After being opened this year with much fanfare, the desalination plant is idle except for test runs. Producing desalted water costs $700 an acre-foot, compared to the $150 to $400 an acre-foot that Santa Barbara pays for water from other sources.

An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons. City officials have raised water rates to pay for the desalting plant, which they said is justified as an insurance policy.

In desert-bound Las Vegas, drought is a permanent condition. Local residents are ecstatic because the city has received 6.71 inches of rain this year, nearly five inches above normal for this time. Average annual rainfall is a little more than four inches.

Las Vegas receives most of its water from the Colorado River under terms of a 1922 compact among the seven Colorado Basin states. Based on current estimates, Las Vegas will use its entire Colorado River allotment by 2006 and be forced to find other sources. Until recession struck last year, Las Vegas was the fastest-growing city in the West.

The prospects of obtaining desalted water from Santa Barbara are enticing as Las Vegas comes under heavy criticism from federal agencies, environmentalists and agricultural interests for an ambitious plan that would claim underground rivers throughout the West.

Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt has led a legal battle against this effort, on which hearings will be held later this year.

As Mulroy sees it, Las Vegas has become a "whipping boy" because the gambling culture makes it an easy target, although 80% of the West's water is used for farming, most of it by large agribusiness interests.

But even Las Vegas officials acknowledge that the city's reputation as a water-waster was largely deserved.

This has changed in the last two years as the water district and local communities have required water-conserving toilets and shower heads in new construction, banned new man-made lakes in subdivisions, raised rates and restricted hours of watering.

The Mirage, the largest hotel-casino on the Las Vegas strip with 3,049 rooms, uses reclaimed "gray water" in its 4.5-acre, 54-waterfall lagoon. Mirage Resorts is building an adjacent hotel of equal size known as Treasure Island that is to feature a bay with hourly mock battles between two 18th-Century sailing ships.

Mulroy said Treasure Island will perform a useful service in recycling polluted sub-surface water, typically trapped in this area 30 or 40 feet below the ground by layers of impenetrable rock.

The hotel is building a $5-million plant to reclaim this water for the pirates' bay and other nondrinking uses.

Las Vegas may benefit on a far larger scale from a desalting project that would produce drinking water from the Virgin River, a saline Colorado River tributary flowing through Nevada, Utah and Arizona. A proposed contract among the states calls for building a plant that would provide drinking water for Las Vegas and reduce the salt flow into nearby Lake Mead.

But obtaining desalted water from the Pacific particularly fires Mulroy's imagination. Her fascination with the ocean is widely shared in this desert metropolis, where several hotel-casinos use ocean themes. The dolphins that frolic in a 1.5-million-gallon pool at the Mirage are among the city's popular non-gambling attractions.

The complicated plan being discussed between Las Vegas and Santa Barbara probably would work this way:

Santa Barbara would give up its water entitlement from the California State Water Project when a new aqueduct is completed in three to five years. The Metropolitan Water District, a vast wholesaler that serves Southern California and obtains water from the State Water Project and the Colorado River, would use the entitlement.

The MWD then would release an equal share of its Colorado River Water to Las Vegas, which would pay Santa Barbara.

This plan requires approval of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Tom Cahill, director of the Colorado River Commission of Nevada, said he believes that such approval would be forthcoming, "because it would really put new water into the system, which is good for everyone."

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