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The fight for water: Nevada taps Lake Mead and hunts for 'Utah' water

Published: Monday, May 14 2012 9:22 p.m. MDT

Pat Mulroy, general manager for Southern Nevada Water Authority, Wednesday, April 11, 2012.

Winston Armani, Deseret News

Related list: Dam locations that comprise the Colorado River Basin area

Read more: Lake Powell Pipeline: Albatross or golden goose?

Editor's note: This is the third in a three-part series on the impacts of the West's shrinking water supply and the costly battle to find solutions. Read the first part: The fight for water: Here's why the West's oldest battle could hit you at the tap. Read the second part: The fight for water: Can the mighty Mississippi save the West?

LAS VEGAS — Pat Mulroy isn't willing to gamble on the future of the 2 million residents who need the Colorado River to keep Lake Mead full enough to quench their thirst.

An unwavering 11-year drought has reaffirmed the harsh reality that two-thirds of Nevada's population is caught in the grip of the fickle and foundering water supply of the Colorado River, for which this year is the third driest since 1965.

Never mind last year — the third wettest — which provided welcome relief but only reiterated to Mulroy that you can't depend on the undependable.

"So after having experienced a very wet year last year, we're learning a very valuable lesson," said Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. "One good year won't get us out of this protracted drought period."

Nevada's quest for water has powered a maelstrom of controversy in Utah over the water authority's desire to tap groundwater in the eastern basins of Nevada. Native American Indian tribes; multiple counties such as Salt Lake, Millard and Juab; and western desert ranchers and farmers have strenuously fought Mulroy in what they see as a water grab.

Although the groundwater pumping effort wouldn't involve one well sunk in Utah land, critics say it will draw the underground river down to disastrous levels because the hydrological basins are connected on the Utah-Nevada border.

It is a proposal that is uncertain and years away but is part of the water authority's 50-year water resource plan, which requires Mulroy to shore up future supplies, and look to secure what she already has with Lake Mead.

To Mulroy, that means dealing with 1,050 — a dreaded number and the threat she sees just a couple of dry years down the road.

When Lake Mead, situated behind Hoover Dam, drops to 1,050 feet, the No. 1 intake valve that sucks water out the nation's largest reservoir shuts down. If that upper intake is out of commission, the Southern Nevada Water Authority loses 40 percent of its capacity to deliver water. Another 50 feet lower, and the No. 2 intake shuts down, and the tap to 90 percent of the water supply to the Las Vegas metro area is turned off.

"For us, it gets pretty serious," she said.

Mulroy's sure bet is the $800 million wager she's placed on putting in another drain at elevation 860 feet, which will allow the delivery of water in case Lake Mead reaches dead pool.

"I think it is a matter of time," she said. "I think it is a matter of when, not if," that the No 1 intake is idled by a declining Lake Mead.

The project, scheduled to be complete in 2014, has hundreds of workers conquering rock by burrowing under the bed of Lake Mead for the three-mile-long tunnel to the new No. 3 intake valve. In the staging area at Saddle Island — which was under water in flush years — 15,000 pieces of tunnel segments will be assembled for the completion of the intake tunnel.

The intake itself is like an upside-down concrete funnel made by pouring 10,000 yards of concrete through a 368-foot-long pipe into a big hole in the ground. Workers never touch the water and instead use sonar and a mini submarine to come within an inch of their target in 350-foot-deep water.

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