To supplement its supply, the authority first applied for water rights in 1989 in five rural basins (the Snake, Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys), but it held off on major action until midway through the drought in the 2000s.
The water authority wants up to 175,000 acre-feet per year (afy) from the valleys, an undertaking that would cost $3.2 billion if it were built today with cash, according to SNWA estimates. Accounting for legal delays, inflation and financing, projections rise to $15.4 billion.
"We need to buttress our water supply, plain and simple," Entsminger said. A March 2011 planning document lists drought and "predictions of reduced river flow due to climate change" as top motivations for SNWA's proposal.
How do you 'stretch' water?
But rural Nevadans and Utahns worry the pipeline would do irreversible damage to their range. They say there simply isn't enough water to share.
"We live very close to the land, and we see springs dry up or get low in drought years," said Kathy Hill, a schoolteacher and lifelong Snake Valley resident. "We also see how the whole desert just greens up when it rains, and plants and animals flourish. How can this water be taken without severely affecting us?"
Hill lives on a 40-acre homestead in Partoun, Utah, about 50 unpaved miles from Baker. The water authority proposes drilling nine production wells in Snake Valley to pump 50,000 acre-feet per year.
Ranchers in the valley and throughout the Great Basin rely on a combination of mountain runoff and groundwater pumping to tend to their crops. Their own pumping can strain the water supply -- causing natural-running artesian wells to go dry, for example -- and they say the pipeline project would put them over the edge.
"We're trying to stretch the water," said rancher Don Anderson, who lives in Callao, 23 miles north of Partoun, along that same dirt road. "We have already impacted ourselves at this level. We couldn't withstand a project such as that."
"I would have to go out of business," he added. Anderson operates a 1,000-acre calf-cow ranch and grows alfalfa and corn for the livestock; the homestead has been in his wife Beth's family for 130 years.
Callao's wet meadows are what made it an "oasis" for ranching in the first place, Anderson said. The isolated community is home to five working ranches and just a few dozen residents. It's more than 50 miles from the nearest paved road. Beth Anderson shrugs off the fact that the closest grocery store is hours away.
Theoretically, the ranchers could drill deeper to access lower sections of the aquifer, and SNWA would be required to pay for that. But what can't be protected against, the ranchers say, is the lowering of the entire water table. They worry that even distant SNWA wells would eliminate the shallow groundwater and surface water that feed grassy meadows needed to raise livestock.
The water authority has vowed to follow a plan laid out by BLM to monitor the production wells and decrease or stop pumping if major environmental impacts are seen. But Snake Valley residents call it an empty promise. "You can't believe anything they say," quipped retired Callao rancher Cecil Garland, 86. "I wouldn't believe them if they walked in the yard here and said hello." Distrust for the authority is almost ubiquitous here.
What happens to the phreatophytes?
Davis, the SNWA spokesman, says such worries are unfounded. "We are subject to an unprecedented level of restrictions and scrutiny," he insisted. "We're going to abide by the laws, not just in the letter, but in the spirit."
Davis is an expert public relations man, rarely flustered by those who disagree, but sometimes the staunch opposition still stuns him. "This idea of 'not one drop' isn't reasonable," he says.