Aaron Bunker grew up on a dairy farm in Bunkerville. Reminiscing about those days, he says he was always fascinated by his surroundings on the banks of the Virgin River. His upbringing taught him a lot about irrigation and conservation before he graduated from Virgin Valley High School in 1999. He went on to study environmental management and earth science at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah.
After trying a couple jobs in the environmental field, he had an opportunity to return to his Virgin Valley roots when the job of assistant hydrologist became available at Virgin Valley Water District (VVWD) ten years ago. With changes in district management, he was promoted to his current position of hydrologist supervisor. Aaron will readily admit he sees his work as more than just a job; he considers it a life’s calling.
What are the duties of a hydrologist? Here in the desert, as in every area of the world, the primary duty of a public works hydrologist is to deliver clean, safe, and sustainable water to its users. The challenges of that duty are many, in an area like Nevada where water can be scarce.
Bunker, in his day to day work, deals with operation of the district wells, tracks the history of water flow and water quality, measures local rainfall and aquifer recharge, helps maintain district infrastructure, handles water rights documentation and other state and federal licensing, works with new water users applications, and numerous other tasks that fall to the district’s relatively small staff.
The district currently operates nine wells that produce 100 percent of the potable water for the district. A system of about 160 miles of piping, seven water tanks, and five arsenic filtration plants deliver water to the 9000-plus users of the valley. The district also owns shares of surface water from the river and rights to spring water from five springs on the Virgin Mountains, the largest being Nickel Springs, which will be developed in the future when demand exceeds the production of ground water resources.
Bunker currently focuses on completion and hookup of well 1A and well 27A to the water system. Well 1A is a replacement for the well that first served the district, located adjacent to the Bunkerville Cemetery. “We drilled 1A in 2016. Completing the wellhouse and arsenic filteration system has been a slow process. The original well at that site pre-dated Clark County records for that property, so it has been a difficult process establishing all the documents and easements needed to assure legal rights for the district to operate the new well. We expect it to come online in March 2019. It will produce about 1000 gallons per minute, an average flow among the district wells. It has good quality water with lower arsenic content that can be removed with a filter.” Well 27A, at Pioneer Blvd and Oasis Blvd in Mesquite, is closing in on its final phase of construction, and is expected to be brought online this fall.
Bunker looks forward to the hiring of a district engineer who will take on management of district infrastructure projects. VVWD has recently posted that position and is accepting applications for that job. “It will be good to have another pair of eyes to oversee our projects,” Bunker remarks. “We have been stretched to cover all the work needed to keep up with area growth and properly maintain our system.” Bunker credits the weekly VVWD staff meetings with building communication and team morale in handling the ever-growing responsibilities of delivering water to the valley. He also sees the upcoming purchase of a hydraulic vacuum truck as a major step forward in safety and efficiency of line repair work. Water quality and corrosive soil conditions cause frequent line breaks the crews must deal with.
VVWD has not always been in as good a position as it is today. Bunker admits that during his first years with the district, it was playing catch-up, struggling to overcome problems of explosive growth, mismanagement of resources, cash shortages, and criminal fraud by a previous district hydrologist. “We saw work that needed to be done, but didn’t have the money to do it,” Bunker explains. It took harsh measures of massive rate increases to get the district back on its financial feet. “Now we are able to project district growth and plan future infrastructure projects, knowing that we have the revenue to pay for them. Water users in our district pay about the same price for water as those in Moapa Valley, and considerably less than users in Las Vegas.”
Looking forward, Bunker prioritizes drilling of future well 34 as the next major well project. This well, and future well 35 will be drilled in Lincoln County north of Mesquite. Those wells, along with a water tank that will be constructed along Mesquite Heights Road, are needed to provide water capacity and adequate pressure for new development north of I-15 in Mesquite. VVWD shares water rights with Lincoln County on aquifer Basin 222. With its sparce population centers located north of its water holdings, Lincoln County is agreeable to cooperating with VVWD in delivering water to the Virgin Valley where growth is a certainty.
“Most people never think about what it takes to run a city,” says Bunker. “As long as the air conditioning is on and the shower works, everybody is happy.” Mesquite seems to be in a good position on those counts. VVWD draws only about half of its yearly allotted supply of water from the aquifer. Annual readings indicate that the aquifer recharges itself and is not being dangerously drawn down by current growth. VVWD underground sources are separate from the aquifers that serve Moapa Valley and Coyote Springs, where new development was recently restricted by Nevada’s state water engineer.
Also, VVWD draws its surface water shares from the Virgin River above the confluence of the Virgin and Colorado Rivers, where all water usage is subject to regulation by the Colorado River Pact that divided up the river water among the western states that now see drought and increased population threatening their traditional supply. VVWD is currently a net surface water supplier, leasing excess surface water shares to Las Vegas. Those lease fees supplement rates paid by local VVWD users and help hold down local water costs while allowing VVWD to operate and expand its infrastructure valued at over $200 million.
The current staff headed up by general manager Kevin Brown, with strong, reliable support from hydrologist Aaron Bunker and others, delivers on the promise to deliver safe and dependable water for today and tomorrow. VVWD is a political unit governed by a locally-elected five-member board. It holds public board meetings on the first and third Tuesdays of each month. Agendas are posted in advance online at www.vvh2o. Phone 702-346-5731.