EDITORIAL: Pumping station a critical need; rate hike a must

Think about every state government entity and public agency calling for additional taxes and fees, then prioritize their needs. What can you live without?

Nevada needs to improve its education and mental health systems. Its highways will require major investments in the decade ahead. Cities and counties claim services won’t keep up with growth if statewide property tax caps aren’t lifted. The county’s police departments want a sales tax increase to boost their operational budgets.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority wants another rate increase, too — on top of those imposed the past two years — to build a $650 million pumping station at Lake Mead that would allow the valley to continue drawing water from the shrinking reservoir.

Even if taxpayers could afford the entire wish list — and they can’t — would the community survive without any of those tax increases, or any that might be proposed during the 2015 Legislature? After weathering the Great Recession, we know Southern Nevada can endure just about anything the world throws at us — as long as we can pump hundreds of millions of gallons of water from Lake Mead every day.

A secure water supply makes life possible in the country’s driest major metropolitan area. And make no mistake, more than a decade of drought across the West has threatened the security of our water supply. The surface of Lake Mead has fallen 130 feet since 2000. As reported by the Review-Journal’s Henry Brean, if the lake’s level falls an additional 85 feet, the authority’s current intake pipes and pumps would stop working. There would be no way to pump from the lake’s $817 million third intake, which should open next year at one of the deepest parts of the lake.

The authority’s board meets Wednesday to discuss the plan to build a new pumping station. The station was supposed to be built with the third intake but had to be cut from the project because of the recession. That didn’t turn out to be such a bad thing. The pumping station has been redesigned to go 140 feet deeper and pump 50 percent more water.

Paying for the new pumping station requires a new fixed charge on water bills. The authority proposes a fee that varies based on the size of the service line. The average residential customer would pay between $4 and $5 more per month by 2018. Large companies would see monthly price increases of between $180 and $420 by 2018. It’s worth noting that even if this project and rate increase are approved, the typical monthly valley water bill will remain below the average of 62 western cities.

It’s another pinch for the public, but it’s one that residents must endure. This valley cannot afford to gamble with its water supply. We get 90 percent of our water from Lake Mead, and if a new pumping station is not built and linked to the new third intake, there is a chance that several years from now we won’t be able to suck a single drop of water from the reservoir.

Taxpayers can take only so many hits. The bill for a new pumping station must be one of them. The water authority board should approve the pumping station and fee increase.