Trip Report

Trip Report: Water Scarcity in the US Western Region

Saïd Majdi and Thomas Manaugh

March 2015
Table of Contents
Background 3
Notes from Meeting with the Southern Nevada Water Authority 4
Notes from Meeting with Sierra Club Members 7
Attendees Recommendations 9
Notes from Meeting with U.S. Bureau of Reclamation 11
Notes from Meeting with Coastkeeper 12
Notes from Visit to the Carlsbad Desalination Plant 14
Discussion and Conclusions 18
References 20

This report consists mainly of notes from meetings conducted by the authors in Nevada and California during the week of January 12, 2014. The meetings were with citizens, officials, and vendors who are concerned with finding good solutions to a problem of continuing and increasingly dire water scarcity. We were on a fact-finding mission that was planned as part of a project proposal for which we received an award from MIT’s CoLab Contest in November 2014. The proposal was for a project that would help to mitigate a particular problem of water scarcity in Las Vegas, Nevada. We call the proposal the “Desalination Plan.” (1)
By contrast southern Nevada water officials intend to implement a plan that will consist of pumping groundwater from the eastern region of Nevada and transporting it to Las Vegas over a 263-mile course. That is the “Groundwater Plan.” (2)
During our trip we had the pleasure of meeting numerous smart and hard-working people who are concerned about making sure adequate water will be available to people in ways that are sustainable and environmentally responsible. We thank those who so generously and graciously gave us their time.

Notes from Meeting with the Southern Nevada Water Authority
The following are notes from a meeting attended by the two co-authors. The meeting took place at the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) offices in Las Vegas, Nevada on Monday, January 12, 2015 at 9:00 AM.
Present at the meeting were Ms. Colby Pellegrino, P.E., Colorado River Program Manager and Mr. Bronson Mack, Public Information, both representing SNWA.
The purpose of the meeting was to get SNWA’s views on water resource management issues in Nevada and the rest of the U.S. western region, with special focus on current and planned projects to augment southern Nevada’s water supply.
In her introduction, Ms. Pellegrino stated that southern Nevada is not in a state of water scarcity, nor is one expected in the near future. Presently, SNWA does not even withdraw its full allotment of water from the Colorado River. Furthermore, it stores significant amounts of water for future needs in water banks in three states—Nevada, California, and Arizona.
It appears much of the success SNWA has enjoyed with respect to maintaining adequate supplies of water has come from employing a number of water conservation and water efficiency programs, as described at
One initiative by SNWA has been highly controversial and is the subject of a lawsuit filed by a number of civic and environmental groups. The controversial plan is titled “Clark, Lincoln, and White Pine Counties Groundwater Development Project,” referred to here as the “Groundwater Plan.” (See and, regarding the lawsuit,
Ms. Pellegrino and Mr. Mack reject some of the arguments advanced by opponents of the Groundwater Plan. They especially reject the idea that SNWA is in any way engaging in “water theft.” Rather, they point out that acquiring groundwater from eastern Nevada counties is completely legal under existing laws and that it is, furthermore, justified by the project’s supporting the overall economic needs of Nevada and the needs of the majority of Nevadans to have water security. Southern Nevada contributes over 70% of the economic activity in Nevada, and more than 70% of Nevadans live in southern Nevada.
Ms. Pellegrino also pointed out evidence to show SNWA is working with other groups—governmental and non-governmental—to increase water security for the entire lower Colorado basin. Specifically, she pointed to the following examples of cooperation:
1. Working cooperatively with the Environmental Defense Fund, other NGOs, and water officials in both the US and Mexico to provide a pulse release of water, so as to enhance wildlife habitat in the delta, where the Colorado River enters the Gulf of California in Mexico. (See
2. Voluntarily curtailing storage of Nevada’s allotment of water from the Colorado River in order to help conserve water in Lake Mead for use by all entitled water users. (See
3. Participation in a recently approved and funded pilot study program where water entitlement holders will have an opportunity to get funds to carry out pilot projects on ways whereby water can be conserved in the Colorado River.
4. Contributing funds for a study of salinity in the Colorado River as part of a commitment to honor an agreement whereby Mexico gets water with acceptable salinity levels from the Colorado River. (See
5. Helping fund construction of the Brock Reservoir in California—thereby keeping water in the Colorado River system that would not have been put to use—in exchange for a credit of 400,000 acre-feet of water that will eventually be used by Nevada. We interviewed John Shields, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Water Accounting & Verification Group, on January 13, 2015, at the at Bureau offices in Boulder City, Nevada.
6. Contributing to (a) funding of a desalination plant in Yuma, Arizona. (See and (b) a feasibility study for another desalination plant in Rosarito Beach, Baja, Mexico. (See
Mr. Mack mentioned policies SNWA employs, when possible, to build trust with various civic and environmental groups:
1. Proactive involvement with stakeholders
2. Transparency
3. Building trust and working hard to keep trust
The above points regarding trust are important, because SNWA hopes to get approval for its Groundwater Plan even though not all aspects of the plan are specified “up front.” A strategy is proposed that depends on trust that groundwater pumping activities will be modified if evidence arises that too much water is being removed to be consistent with protecting the environment and the rights of various down-basin water-rights holders.

Notes from Meeting with Sierra Club Members
In the afternoon of January 12, 2015, we met with a group of about 20 concerned Nevadans at the Sierra Club office in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Las Vegas Sierra Club Office is a shared space with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN). Among those present, there were Sierra Club members, Great Basin Water Network leaders, veteran warriors against the Yucca Mountain nuclear dump, a college professor, an ecologist, an engineer and organizers. Several other southern Nevadans had expressed interest, but could not attend the meeting.
In planning this meeting we had two main objectives. First, we wanted to listen to the concerns of Nevadans regarding water scarcity. Second, we wanted to get feedback on our proposed Desalination Plan, with the idea to enhance it and increase its chances of becoming an accepted workable solution to the water scarcity problem in the western region.
We would like to thank Ms. Rose Strickland, Water Campaign Chair and Public Lands, Wetlands and Refuges Chair of the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club and Ms. Jane Feldman, Secretary of the Southern Nevada Group of the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club for organizing this meeting.
We also would like to thank Mr. Mark Bird, Professor at the College of Southern Nevada, for his input before, during and after the meeting.
Mr. Jon Becker, former Lab Manager at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering – University of Nevada Las Vegas, was kind enough to make a special presentation on Biofuels to the authors of this report, on January 13, 2015. Many thanks to him for the presentation and his research into ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions contributed by transportation.
After introductions, we made a slide presentation to introduce the concept of the Desalination Plan. The exchange that ensued included the following points of discussion as well as recommendations from the attendees.
1. Desalination is a good conversation to have in the community. It should be looked into as a real alternative to the pipeline project.
2. Proposal is right on. A good alternative.
3. While some thought that the Desalination Plan was well-thought out, others thought it lacked detail, especially in the area of implementation logistics, and therefore, it should be called an idea or concept but not a plan.
4. Good balance of technical and political complexities surrounding the issues of water in the western region.
5. Proposal may not be the most environmentally sound alternative to the Groundwater Plan.
6. Little understanding of the decision-making process.
7. Proposal lacks a water efficiency/conservation component. Seems like another “increase-water-supply proposal”. Not balanced with a decrease-water-demand component.
8. Increasing water supplies is not a sustainable solution to water scarcity in the desert in the short or long term. Proposal should include a component to reduce water demand with more focus on agricultural uses and misuses of water.
9. Proposal should include urban rainwater run-off harvesting as a water augmentation component.
10. Proposal needs a stronger argument to convince California water authorities, farmers and the California Coastal Commission to be onboard with Nevada for the implementation of the Desalination Plan.
11. Proposal needs a stronger argument to convince SNWA to substitute the Desalination Plan for the Groundwater Plan. Given SNWA’s $100M investment in water hearings for water rights, BLM’s environmental impact statement (EIS) for a pipeline right-of-way and the purchase of several Spring Valley ranches, SNWA would most likely not want to give up on the Groundwater Plan. SNWA would most likely just add the Desalination Plan to its portfolio of possible solutions to the water scarcity problem for the purpose of diversification and to gain access to more water from the Colorado River.
12. There is a need for the study of the environmental impact of desalination and solar power plants.
13. There is a need to study the greenhouse gases expended in laying 263 miles of pipes for the Groundwater Plan.
14. Many objected to the use of concentrated solar power (CSP), because of reports of its negative impact on birds. The Nevada Solar One Plant may have a more bird-friendly design than the Ivanpah CSP Plant.
15. Proposal needs more emphasis on the study of the benefits to the Colorado River.
16. To conserve more water, consider filling Lake Mead first, since Lake Mead loses less water by evaporation than Lake Powell.
17. Proposal needs a detailed financial analysis, including funding sources, to show how the Desalination Plan could be successfully implemented.
18. Proposal needs an economic analysis to be able to compare the costs of the Desalination Plan and the Groundwater Plan.
19. There is a great concern that the water crisis in Las Vegas may come too soon for any long-term project to have a chance to contribute to preventing the crisis.
20. An interesting quote to ponder: “The world is a business without a business plan.”
Attendees Recommendations
1. Revise proposal to put together something that would gain broad support in order to overcome the huge resistance by SNWA and its supporters (less costly, more environmentally sound, demonstrated less global warming impacts, water efficiency/conservation components, benefits to Colorado River, etc.)
2. Talk about a commitment to use renewable energy, but without a commitment to concentrated solar power.
3. Think more critically on how proposal would convince SNWA to “give up” its instate project and not simply pursue both options (how to dispose of water rights, ROW permits, ranches).
4. Develop cost/contributions to global warming comparisons between proposal and SNWA’s pipeline project.
5. Include water conservation/efficiency components in the proposal.
6. Reach out to media and local politicians, especially those already critical of SNWA.
7. Acknowledge the political hurdles and get others on the team with political and economic expertise.
8. Develop a more detailed plan, especially with cost comparisons.
9. Translate presentation into Spanish and reach out to the Latino community and leaders.
10. Turn presentation into a 3-4 minute movie and put it on YouTube to reach more people and attract funding.
11. Explain why proposal is good for the health of the Colorado River, not just for human water needs.
Notes from Meeting with U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
We interviewed John Shields, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Water Accounting & Verification Group, on January 13, 2015, at the Bureau offices in Boulder City, Nevada.
Mr. Shields has a great deal of knowledge about how water has been managed in the western U.S. for more than 100 years. Now, population growth, agricultural and industrial demands for water, and drought make water management ever more important for more than 40 million water consumers in the Lower Colorado Basin. Here are a few of the most salient points we discussed with Mr. Shields.
1. Though there is a long history of conflict over water rights, water authority officials are coming together to find ways to cooperate in managing limited resources from the Lower Colorado River Basin:
a. Memoranda of Agreement, whereby water districts voluntarily implement ways to use less water
b. Mutual funding of pilot studies to demonstrate ways to conserve water
c. Cooperative transfers and exchanges of water
2. Not widely known efforts have been made in various areas to increase water in the Colorado River by increasing precipitation via cloud-seeding ( Even less well known was an attempt to make water available by condensing water vapor from the air.
Mr. Shields provided several references for past and present attempts to manage water resources in the Colorado River.

Notes from Meeting with Coastkeeper
On January 16, 2015, we interviewed Raymond Hiemstra at the Coastkeeper office in Costa Mesa, California. Coastkeeper is a local environmental group. The nature of its mission is described at their website ( as follows:
“Orange County Coastkeeper (Coastkeeper) is a nonprofit clean water organization that serves as a proactive steward of our fresh- and saltwater ecosystems. We work collaboratively with diverse groups in the public and private sectors to achieve healthy, accessible, and sustainable water resources for the region. We implement innovative, effective programs in education, advocacy, restoration, research, enforcement, and conservation.”
Mr. Hiemstra has been a long-time opponent of certain desalination projects on the California coast. However, he is not opposed to all desalination projects. He approves of a desalination project to be constructed at Doheny Beach in California, because it is a right-sized project in the right location at the right cost. A major concern of his is when water intake to a desalination plant kills marine life. The Doheny plant is considering a slant, under-the-sea system to intake water to the plant, thus protecting marine life from being harmed by impingement, entrainment, and entrapment.
We briefly described a newly invented “Leaky Barge” system of ours that would achieve high-level protection of marine life at a modest cost. Mr. Hiemstra stated that the invention seemed like it might be an acceptable alternative to a subsurface intake system. He said that he had heard that a subsurface system for a proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant would cost $500 million. The Leaky Barge system is estimated to cost a very small fraction of that amount.
Mr. Hiemstra is an advocate for conservation approach to water scarcity; e.g., capturing storm water and reuse of water. A major concern of his and his organization is water quality. He was able to comment on some major concerns of other environmental organizations on the California coast when the issue of desalination is raised:
1. Sierra Club – Energy and climate change
2. Surfrider – Waves
3. Natural Resources Defense Council – Marine life
He stated that he would like to see those in charge of constructing desalination projects become better listeners to the concerns of local groups.

Notes from Visit of the Carlsbad Desalination Plant
On January 15, 2015, we visited the Carlsbad Desalination Plant in Carlsbad, California. Many thanks to Ms. Bar Littlefield, CFO at Poseidon Water, for facilitating the visit and Ms. Jessica Jones, Community Outreach Manager at Poseidon Water for receiving us at the plant and leading the tour. Many thanks also to Mr. Brent Morgheim, Project Engineer at Poseidon Resources, for conducting the tour and answering our many questions.
After a brief safety course, we put on our safety gear and started the tour.
The Carlsbad Desalination Plant is located about 35 miles north of San Diego. The construction of the plant started in fall 2012 with a projected completion date in fall 2015. At a $1B price tag, the plant is expected to produce up to 50 million gallons per day (mgd) of clean drinking water and account for about one third of all the water produced in San Diego County. This is projected to meet 7 percent of the County’s demand in 2020.
Poseidon Water is the project owner. In 2012, Poseidon Water signed a 30-year Water Purchase Agreement (WPA) with the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA). Under the terms of the WPA, SDCWA will purchase between 48,000 and 56,000 acre-feet of water per year, which is equivalent to supplying water for up to 112,000 typical single-family homes of four each year.
The Carlsbad Desalination Plant is under construction within the land occupied by the natural gas-fueled Encina Power Station, owned by NRG Energy, Inc., which is being decommissioned. Figure 1 depicts a site plan of the Carlsbad Desalination Plant.
SDCWA has the option, but not the obligation, to buy the project from Poseidon starting 10 years after the beginning of commercial operations. After 30 years, SDCWA has the right, but not the obligation, to purchase the Desalination Plant for $1. The purchase would include the plant, intake and discharge facilities, and rights to the long-term lease with NRG, owner of the plant site.
The following describes the main steps of the seawater treatment process. See Figure 2 for a block diagram describing the desalination process.
• The plant uses the existing open-ocean intake of the Encina Power Station to bring in seawater for processing. In order to produce 50 mgd of clean drinking water, the plant must pump in 100 mgd from the ocean.
• Water pumped from the ocean is treated with coagulating chemicals in Coagulation and Flocculation tanks to (a) neutralize negative-charge particles and microorganisms and (b) aggregate neutralized particles in larger flocs before pretreatment.
• The conditioned seawater coming out of the Coagulation and Flocculation tanks is fed to the conventional granular filtering tanks in the Pretreatment Area. These tanks use tri-media filtering—gravel (1-ft layer), sand (3-ft layer) and anthracite (9-in layer). Anthracite having the lowest specific mass of the three media sits on top. Gravel having the highest specific mass is laid at the bottom of the tank. With coagulation, conventional granular filtration removes particles as small as 0.2 ?m. These contaminants contained in source seawater can be of the following types: particulate, colloidal, organic, mineral and microbiological.
• After a certain period of time, contaminants accumulate in the filter bed. A backwash process is run to expand the filter bed to release accumulated contaminants. Filter backwash is sent to the Solids Handling Area for treatment. Treated backwash water is resent through the Coagulation and Flocculation tanks for processing. Residual solids are loaded on a truck and sent to a landfill.
• Filtered seawater (filtrate) coming out of the Pretreatment Area is fed to the Reverse Osmosis (RO) System that is made up of 2,016 RO vessels. The RO System removes most of the salt found in seawater, reducing it to an acceptable level for potable water. Pretreatment plays an essential role in removing contaminants that could cause fouling of the RO membranes and debris that could cause damage resulting in having to replace RO vessels.
• After desalination is complete, water (permeate) flows from the RO System to an aboveground buffer tank and a larger, belowground storage tank located in close proximity.
• The RO System filters out the high-salinity water (concentrate) and sends it to the Energy Recovery System, before it is discharged in the ocean. The Energy Recovery System saves an estimated 116 million kWh of energy per year, reducing CO2 emissions by 41,000 metric tons annually.
• The stored product water is sent through a newly built 10-mile pipeline to SDCWA’s Second Aqueduct. From there it will be conveyed to a water treatment plant north of the city of San Marcos, where it will be mixed with existing drinking water supplies before regional distribution.
The Carlsbad Desalination Plant provides an opportunity to study the many aspects of desalination. The public-private partnership, financing, plant design, technology and greenhouse gas emissions mitigation are some of the factors that could make this project a model for future desalination projects in California.

Figure 1 – Site Plan of the Carlsbad Desalination Plant

Figure 2 – Block Diagram of the Desalination Process

Discussion and Conclusions
We found the trip to Nevada and California to be very informative. On the basis of some of the information we got, we have decided to make some revisions in our Desalination Plan. Those revisions will be announced to interested parties in communications like this report and to the public in the Comments section of our CoLab website. (3)
We also made some observations and came to some tentative conclusions about the dynamics of solving water scarcity problems in the West:
• There is contentiousness between water authorities in southern Nevada and certain local environmental and civic groups that will not go away easily. Officials deem it their rightful responsibility to proceed with the Groundwater Plan, feeling (a) it will probably be needed in the future by people and businesses in their area of the state and (b) the plan can be made to work in an environmentally responsible way. Opposing groups, on the other hand, deem the Groundwater Plan a “Water Grab” that they will never accept because they feel it will be environmentally and economically destructive. However, the authors’ Desalination Plan seems to include elements that would be acceptable to both sides, thus providing some hope that the two sides can work together to solve the water scarcity problem. It is possible our Desalination Plan could be developed in a way that it would earn the support of both camps and the public at large.
• There is a striking parallel between contentious opposition to the Groundwater Plan in Nevada and opposition to certain aspects of constructing and operating desalination plants on the California Coast. In both cases, civic and environmental groups are concerned about economic and environmental impacts. After touring an almost-completed desalination plant at Carlsbad, California, and talking with an environmental activist who has generally been opposed to desalination plants because of costs, locations, and threats to marine life, we became hopeful that those issues could be largely or completely resolved by improved technology. We are currently working on plans that would involve using new inventions of ours to both reduce costs and protect marine life.
• New technologies might be necessary, but they will not be sufficient. There is a human element to problem solving. Trust-building and good communications are key elements for getting agreements on what solutions should be implemented. Early and transparent communication about plans and concerns could increase consensus or reduce conflict among stakeholders. Toward that end, the authors will participate in a planned conference in Las Vegas, where water scarcity issues will be discussed. Details will be made available as planning for the conference proceeds. We will present our revised Desalination Plan at the conference.
• There are definite signs of increased interest in finding innovative solutions to water scarcity problems where solutions are implemented beyond the borders of a single state. Possibilities for finding larger, longer-term, and more environmentally informed solutions open up when resources are shared among states. This bodes well for our Desalination Plan. It also bodes well for a pilot project we envision that will invite participation from all the above stakeholders. In short, we have on our drawing board a plan to involve stakeholders in a project wherein existing infrastructure will be used in a cost-effective and scalable new way to increase water supplies to consumers while conserving water in the Colorado River. Stay tuned.

1. S. Majdi and T. Manaugh, Proposal for Adaptation to Climate Change, 2014 MIT Climate CoLab Contest,
2. Southern Nevada Water Authority. Clark, Lincoln, and White Pine Counties Groundwater Development Project Conceptual Plan of Development, November 2012, retrieved from the Internet 7/19/2014 at
3. S. Majdi and T. Manaugh, Proposal for Adaptation to Climate Change, 2014 MIT Climate CoLab Contest, Comments Section,

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