Creative agreements underpin success of Las Vegas Wash Coordination Committee

J.C. Davis
Public Information
Las Vegas Wash Coordination Committee

The problems facing the Las Vegas Wash and surrounding wetlands are complex from virtually any perspective. First, there's the wash itself, which carries-along with about 1.5 million gallons of water a day-a host of environmental and water quality issues. Then there's the issue of managing an area that affects dozens of public and private entities, with many entities responsible for a portion, but for which no entity has overall responsibility.

Before delving into the specifics, however, it seems prudent in the interest of those whose familiarity with Las Vegas may not extend beyond the resorts to provide some background on one of southern Nevada's most unique environmental resources. The Las Vegas Wash is a 12-mile channel that funnels all of the 1600-square-mile Las Vegas Valley's drainage to Lake Mead, the country's largest man-made lake and a water supply for upwards of 20 million Southwest residents, including the approximately 1.2 million people who call southern Nevada home.

The Las Vegas Wash's flows include highly treated wastewater, urban runoff, stormwater, and flows from the shallow groundwater aquifer. While effluent from the valley's three wastewater treatment facilities represents the majority of the wash's flows, water from wastewater treatment facilities meets federal Clean Water Act standards and has little impact on Lake Mead's water quality. The same cannot be said of the wash's other flow components, which carry such typical urban contaminants as fertilizer and pesticide residues and, in the case of the shallow groundwater system, more unique contaminants like the oxidizer perchlorate. That said, the Las Vegas Wash's flows represent only about 1.5 percent of the lake's total inflows, mitigating its potential to adversely impact water quality in Lake Mead.

The greater, and much more visible, issue related to the wash is that of erosion. During the 1970s, the Las Vegas Wash was surrounded by a 2,000-acre wetlands. These wetlands helped "polish" the flows and provided habitat for a vast array of wildlife. Today, the wash is deeply channelized and banked by high, sheer cliffs of unstable soil. While increasing treated wastewater flows-an inevitable result of Las Vegas' sustained population explosion-have contributed to the erosion, the most devastating impacts are related to periodic flash floods that wash over the valley like a tsunami. When severe storms strike, the effect can be dramatic; during one 24-hour period in July 1999, the wash's banks widened by 300 feet in some areas.

Because of its water-polishing and habitat attributes, the Las Vegas Wash has emerged in recent years as a key environmental issue. However, there were two major challenges impeding progress. First, no one agency or organization had jurisdiction over the waterway, while dozens could make a legitimate claim to being stakeholders. Developing a process through which all affected parties were represented while ensuring timely progress on restoration and management efforts was a monumental proposition. Second, and this presented even more difficulty than getting committee members to reach consensus, is that there was no established funding mechanism.

The solution took the form of the Las Vegas Wash Coordination Committee (LVWCC), a panel with a singular focus and representation from local, state and federal agencies, environmental groups and the business community. Also included in the mix were private citizens, who provided the impetus for creating the LVWCC through their recommendations as a citizens advisory committee to regional water wholesaler Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA).

Developing a comprehensive management plan, one that would serve as a road map toward a desired future state for the wash, was the LVWCC's first priority. That process was remarkable both for its speed and level of consensus; within a year, the panel had authored the Las Vegas Wash Comprehensive Adaptive Management Plan, a tome that spelled out specific recommendations to protect and restore the fragile wash environment. With the "what" established, the group next began to delve into how funding responsibilities would be shared.

To provide the oversight umbrella and address funding issues, the Management Advisory Committee (MAC), which includes representatives from several of the local participating agencies, was formed. Currently, the MAC is negotiating the necessary agreements needed to implement the already-approved Las Vegas Wash Comprehensive Adaptive Management Plan. These agreements will include recommendations related to which agencies shall assume certain responsibilities and bear financial responsibility for which activities. The MAC will take those recommendations to the affected organizations' boards for approval. Assistance from participating federal agencies also appears to be on the way. Federal legislation introduced this year would allow many federal agencies to earmark funds for restoration activities.

Other LVWCC participants contribute by providing staff support to both the committee and various study teams. The level of technical expertise and familiarity with wash-related issues makes these organizations as valuable to the effort as those funding capital improvement projects. LVWCC members also continue to advance the plan's implementation by coordinating on operational and permitting issues.

Even with these mechanisms in place, the LVWCC has not been content to sit idly by while the MAC hammers out a financing and operations pact. To ensure that on-the-ground activities were not delayed by necessary but time-consuming planning initiatives, the SNWA-designated by the coordination committee as the "lead" agency-has funded many of the efforts to date with funds coming largely from the local water purveyors it serves.

Another source of funds is a portion of proceeds from a 1/4-cent sales tax passed in 1999 to fund potable and wastewater infrastructure. The approximately $2 million per year generated from this source will be part of the MAC's funding plan.

In a city where there are no sure bets, the LVWCC's creative financial and operating strategies have stacked the odds in favor of the Las Vegas Wash. If as expected the MAC completes the necessary agreements-including the funding package-by mid-2001, the entire community will emerge the winner.

For more information, please contact J.C. Davis at 702-258-7117 or at