BAKER, Nev.—Denys Koyle parked an 8-foot bucket on the lot in front of her small motel, here on a lonely stretch of pavement crossing the Utah-Nevada line. A sign on the bucket reads: "Don't Let Las Vegas Destroy Nevada. Stop the Water Pipeline."
Koyle is an unlikely activist. She's quick to point out that she's no tree-hugger. But as she bustles between the Border Inn's grill and gas station, she complains about the long reach and powerful thirst of Las Vegas. These are problems she thinks will put her area, Snake Valley, at risk.
"It's a hundred-years' war," she says. "It's exhausting."
She and her neighbors, settled on either side of U.S. Route 50, are all stirred up by an aggressive pipeline proposal from a city nearly 300 miles away. In many parts of the world, cities are on the forefront of preparing for a climate-changed future. Here it is happening with a peculiar twist: Las Vegas wants the water beneath their feet, and residents scattered through White Pine County and other targeted rural areas aren't budging.
This battle has been raging for two decades with no end in sight.
On the front lines is the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), with its proposal to draw water from five faraway basins, including the Snake Valley, which straddles the Utah border. The multibillion-dollar project would help supply 2 million residents of the sprawling Las Vegas area, but could have severe impacts on the rural valleys.
Its outcome will set the tone for future rural-urban relations in Nevada and other Southwestern states where drought-parched cities want more water. Smaller water pipeline proposals are under scrutiny in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.
Critical milestones loom just ahead.
First, the Nevada state engineer will decide by March whether to give the water authority all, none or part of the water rights it has requested in four of the five targeted basins. (Snake Valley rights will be addressed in a later round of hearings.)
Separately, a final environmental study is expected in summer 2012 from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The federal agency must decide whether to approve rights of way for the pipeline over BLM-managed lands.
These actions will determine who has the upper hand as the remaining regulatory and legal skirmishes play out.
Compromise is not on the horizon. "It's not a conciliatory attitude from any of the parties," said Susan Lynn, coordinator of the Great Basin Water Network, an all-volunteer nonprofit opposed to the pipeline.
Dependable water remains a mirage
The facts of the dispute are not comforting. Las Vegas needs a more diverse water supply. Last decade, Vegas' population grew by more than a fifth, up to 584,000 in city limits (about 2 million in the area). Economic recession has slowed growth, but planners say they need a more stable water supply even to sustain the current population for the long term.
The city gets 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River reservoir of Lake Mead. But the source has proved unpredictable during a recent decade-long drought. The Colorado finally saw relief thanks to healthy precipitation and snowpack levels in 2011.
"We had one good year after 10 bad ones," said SNWA spokesman J.C. Davis. "What if that was just intermission, and next year we start the second wave of a drought?" Davis has observed Lake Mead's fluctuations throughout his 14 years with the water authority.
Of the seven states dependent on the Colorado's water, Nevada gets the slimmest share -- 4 percent -- as determined by a 1922 agreement. Nobody has the stomach for the massive interstate negotiations that would have to take place to reallocate the river, said John Entsminger, senior deputy general manager at SNWA.