When it comes to infrastructure, there are two Nevadas.
A report released last week by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state’s overall infrastructure a “C” grade, but said the mediocre grade only told half the story. Engineers who compiled the study found a stark divide between infrastructure in the state’s concentrated urban areas and the sparsely populated rural areas, which comprise about 90 percent of the state.
“One thing we have to remember is we sort of have a tale of two states — where we have two vibrant areas with most of the population — and 15 rural counties without the same means of securing public revenue for their infrastructure,” said Chuck Joseph, one of the lead authors.
The report came with several policy recommendations to raise the grade, urging rural counties to adopt fuel tax indexing, a tool to raise local revenue for road repairs by tying county-wide gasoline taxes to inflation. Voters in Clark County and Washoe County have already adopted fuel indexing, but a ballot measure to enact similar rules in rural counties failed in 2016.
Most of the state’s $450 million road repair backlog exists in rural areas that see less traffic, the report said. Even so, the engineers argued the disparity can have economic consequences.
“Adequate investment in our roads and bridges is critical to ensuring that freight move seamlessly throughout the state,” said the study, which is released with an infrastructure report card. “Tourists are easily able to access the parks, casinos and other forms of entertainment; and our rural citizens can enjoy the same quality of life as our urban residents.”
The report also recommended that legislators fund the State Infrastructure Bank, which was authorized last year. The bank would provide local governments with the ability to obtain loans and grants that could fund infrastructure improvements. In the 86-page report, civil engineers also stressed that budgets should provide enough funding for operations and maintenance for new infrastructure, a preventative action that would defer more costly future improvements.
Of the 12 infrastructure categories examined by the report, dams scored the lowest on the report card, earning a “D+,” which the rubric described as “Poor: At Risk.”
Despite being the most arid state in the West, Nevada has more than 656 dams and regulators believe 154 of them have a “high hazard” potential, meaning a breach could lead to fatalities or property damage. Most of the state’s dams are used for irrigation or flood control, though some impound mine tailings. Others play a role in supporting fish habitats and create hydropower.
As with roads, funding remains an issue in dam improvements.
The report floated the price tag of about $40 million to fix critical dams, and the study noted that state funding and staffing for high hazard dams is about half of the national average.
“Additional funding is needed to bridge the gap between the state’s dam safety budget and the national average,” the report said. “This would allow for the state program to employ additional staff and provide additional services to the public and other entities.”
Part of the issue in repairing dams is that many of them are privately owned. Tanner Hartranft, an author who co-chaired the report card committee for the Nevada section, said that dynamic can make the state’s job difficult because it is left to give recommendations to private entities.
“The overall theme is there really is a lack of staffing and a lack of funding available for all the private owners to maintain and basically keep their dams up,” he said.
Hoover Dam, which is managed by the federal government, was not included in the report.
The report identified drinking water as another area where the state needed to improve. Citing the Environmental Protection Agency’s 6th Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey, it noted that Nevada could need to invest $5.3 billion in its water systems over the next two decades. A majority of that funding is required to keep up with growth by creating increased capacity.
On this issue, the report again illustrated a clear divide between rural and urban areas.
When state regulators reviewed 598 public water systems last year, 28 water systems were out of compliance with primary federal drinking water standards. They were all in rural Nevada.
“Most of these communities rely on well water with limited treatment, and the cost of treatment for some of these items can far exceed the budgets of small community public water systems,” the report noted.
The last civil engineer report for Nevada came out in 2014, where the state received a “C-” grade. The most recent report card’s grade of a “C” was an improvement for the state, reflecting gains in aviation, bridges, roads, transit and school infrastructure. The dams category stayed the same. Solid waste was the only area where engineers downgraded Nevada’s grade.
Solid waste received a “C” grade.
“Rural parts of the state, in particular, are faced with limited and expensive methods for managing municipal solid waste,” the report said. “We’re also falling short of our statewide goal to recycle 25 percent of municipal solid waste each year. Nevadans will need to recycle the equivalent of nearly 100 Olympic size swimming pools more worth of waste each year to meet this goal.”