The Wasting of our Wastewater and What to Do Next

Wasting Our Wastewater Boulder City, NV

Photo Credit: City of Boulder City

Next Tuesday, March 14th at the City Council meeting, the SNWA (Southern Nevada Water Authority) will present recommendations for our wastewater and possible recycling options. (That section of the agenda packet is HERE for you.) There has been much talk via various outlets on the wastewater return or reuse proposals that have been made for Boulder City.

Options will be presented to the council, but they are not expected to make any decisions. What may occur would be for the council to instruct staff about the offer from the SNWA to do a feasibility study on one or possibly two options that the Utility Advisory Committee (UAE) has recommended, but that is at their discretion.

Let’s first review some basic facts:

  • The City of Boulder City currently operates a wastewater treatment facility with an average effluent rate of 33.5 million gallons per month (~1,234 AFY – Acre Feet a Year) with low seasonal variability
  • The City has a contract with a local quarry operation for an average volume of 7.25 million gallons per month (~267 AFY), which has significant and unpredictable variability
  • The remaining volume (~967 AFY) is discharged to evaporation ponds; Boulder City is the only SNWA partner agency whose recovered indoor water does not produce return-flow credits
  • The City operates two golf courses irrigated using a combination of raw/potable water; in 2021, Boulder City Golf Course used 313.8 million gallons for irrigation, while Boulder Creek used 419.8 million gallons
  • The City also maintains numerous irrigated parks and common spaces, including Veterans Memorial Park, Veterans Cemetary, Bicentennial Park, Hemenway Park and numerous other facilities. All of these properties’ irrigation needs are currently met through a raw water distribution system. (Source, SNWA)

There is nothing new here – we have known for decades that most of our leftover wastewater is allowed to evaporate into the desert without additional usage. Although, fortunately within the City Charter, we CAN put it to use and sell it to others, such as we currently do with the solar companies for dust control. (This is important, and we’ll come back to that). We still have way more excess water than they will ever need.

We’re also in a drought – possibly an epic one that is already several decades old, and no one knows when that may change, if ever. Also in play is the fact that our Colorado River water has been over-committed due to the original nature of the 1922 compact. In a recent article HERE, we’ve talked about that, Boulder City’s role, and Southern Nevada’s water usage at large.

Until recently, no city council has mustered the political will to deal with the wastewater issue. But now that has to change. Why, and why now, you ask? Let’s see what we can learn.

Wasted Water

It’s crunch time, folks – everyone will have to get into this boat and row. Preferably together. We can pat ourselves on the backs here in Southern Nevada because, overall, our per capita water conservation measures are strong. For example, we’re way ahead of the game compared to Arizona or Southern California. But we can and should do more. One way to learn more about what our local citizens are meeting and chatting about is on the local Facebook group – Boulder City Climate Action. The SNWA has also taken steps to plan for further residential water usage cuts by introducing their own bill to the Nevada Legislature, Assembly Bill 220.

The SNWA has offered to help treat or recycle Boulder City’s wastewater for quite some time, which the prior city council never formerly considered. There was some talk, but no action was taken. The proposal has been that the SNWA would pay for water treatment via the Henderson wastewater programs to bring it to standard and released into Lake Mead. The initial costs of that has been estimated at $26 million, and Boulder City would receive the water ‘credits’ from this process. Most importantly, the water would be recycled back into the Colorado River system.

Skeptics often touted that this was really about growth, but those concerns don’t bear out under close examination. However, what does float to the surface are other factors that make a decision more complex than initially meets the eye.

What’s In It For Us?

That is one of the most fundamental questions we should ask – what’s best for Boulder City while addressing the crisis at hand.

HERE is a presentation from the SNWA that was made in January 2023 to the Utility Advisory Committee. In it, you’ll see four options laid out. Options one and four both follow the model of Henderson doing the treatment of the wastewater, requiring an operating agreement with BC and the City of Henderson.

Option two is for Boulder City to reuse the water ourselves directly, but there are risks to our infrastructure and unknown costs for engineering, all of which we would have to carry alone. Option three is similar, with us committing to treat and recycle the water via the Hoover Dam.

But when you get to the end of that presentation, you’ll see some big 30,000 ft. view numbers that all range in the $40 million dollar estimates in terms of costs, including the ones where Henderson processes the wastewater. When you ponder that level of expenditures regardless of which way we turn, and the fact that none of these numbers estimate maintenance, potential personnel training to run such facilities, and replacement of the equipment over time, all of these numbers get LARGE.

The initial response from the UAC was to have the SNWA get back to them with more information on options two and three only. Take a look also at the most recent meeting with the UAC on March 1st. (YouTube HERE, watch from 1:28 – 1:50 time). In that discussion, you see many questions from the committee. Still, ultimately no recommendations were made from them other than that we, or someone, need to invest in a feasibility and engineering study.

They recommend that the city know more information on missing cost estimates on connection fees and wastewater processing costs, just to name a few.

The SNWA is offering to conduct a study to review the feasibility of one or possibly two options, numbers two and three, and they would hire a firm to do that. Some observers have pointed out, though, that the SNWA has its own motivations, and a few have wondered out loud if a study funded by the SNWA would be truly impartial to what Boulder City’s best interests would be.

It is worth pointing out that the SNWA has a lot of control in this process. Boulder City’s allotment for water annually is 18,742 acre-feet of water. We only use 57% of that at a little over 10,000 acre-feet per year. So, while we want to do our part in using our wastewater wisely, we in Boulder City don’t need the credits. But the SNWA does, and one way to look at this is that they are willing to pay $26 million for them.

Just for fun, here’s another humdinger for ya, (does anyone say that anymore?) We may be returning water into the Colorado River through natural seeps into the river below the dam. Several members of the UAC have evidence of that and want to look at the hydrology of the Eldorado Valley to study. If so, we might have returned water to the system without receiving the water credits for a very long time.

Desert Farming

There’s another emerging last-minute option with merit worthy of consideration. Boulder City’s own Milo Hurst (yes, that Milo of Milo’s Cellar) has what might be another alternative.

He proposes a privately funded community farm be developed to use our wastewater to grow crops, and we would own the harvest. He’s done a lot of research on the topic, and there are many examples where this type of program has been successful. The Israeli and Arab countries have been pioneers of desert farming, water conservation, smart watering, and water desalination for decades. And they are not shy about sharing their expertise with others. There are examples closer to home, too, in Arizona and other areas nearby.

Milo has been researching the idea for the better part of a year. He has recently contacted the Council and asked them to evaluate it before making decisions about our wastewater programs. Note, from before, one hurdle already crossed is that the City has the right to sell the water to a private entity like this. You can read more about his idea and some examples HERE. We hope the idea can be flushed out and explored further.

Macro Problems Need Macro Solutions

We’ve seen several presentations from those at the SNWA. They are passionate advocates of responsibly using our water throughout the valley. We don’t doubt for a minute their hard work and dedication to their cause. We also know that some in that organization have (rightly) called out Boulder City for our high per capita usage, something we shared with you in the article from June of last year.

However, Boulder City should not be pushed into making a decision without full visibility for our future either. We were speaking to a friend familiar with these issues yesterday, and he said, “it’s like we’ve walked into a Toyota dealership, and they are insisting we chose between a Corolla, a Camry, a 4Runner and a Tacoma – but they won’t tell us the price until we’ve told them which model we want.” Indeed – it’s not a bad analogy.

The accumulation of inaction has created a sense of urgency – that we must do something NOW. Yet, when we are talking about a great many dollars and zeros, we believe that our council will weigh all these decisions carefully. Once again, I think vision is required, and a long view at that. I don’t envy them these days with all that is at stake, and I appreciate their dedication and service to our town. We will watch to see what happens next Tuesday.

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