He tries to remind doubters that the project will be subjected to constant federal and local agency oversight, and regulators will have the power to stop the pumping if needed. "It's not like the state engineer issues a decision, and we're like, 'Woo-hoo,' and we do whatever we want," he added.
Comments submitted to BLM by Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit legal group, bolster the skeptics' concern that help may come too late.
The extended time range needed to notice effects of groundwater pumping stems from the so-called "cone of depression." When water is pumped from a well, its level drops at that location. But the well doesn't fully empty, because water from the surrounding aquifer gradually trickles into the new low-pressure void. The effect creates a cone-shaped area altered by the pumping.
It is unknown how fast the aquifers would be naturally replenished, but hydrologists agree that the water wouldn't be recharged as quickly as it would be withdrawn. And because it is going to Las Vegas, none of the water would directly return to the rural aquifer system.
Water loss is sure to disrupt the local ecology, said Great Basin National Park Superintendent Andy Ferguson, 60, who sees himself as an advocate for the whole Great Basin. "It's not just a job," he says. "It's where I am, and it's what I live."
One likely casualty of pumping, he said, would be phreatophytes -- deep-rooted shrubs like greasewood that cover much of the Snake Valley and keep the dirt in place. If the greasewood goes, says Garland, the retired rancher, the area will become "literally just a wind-blown desert with nothing to hold it together."
Utah wants a 10-year 'study period'
The influential and well-funded Center for Biological Diversity has been vehement in its opposition to the Las Vegas proposal, flooding BLM with thousands of comments critical of its draft environmental impact statement. An action alert on its website collected 20,500 form submissions in response to BLM's draft environmental impact statement. About 10 percent were unique in some way, the agency said.
At least 550 other comments were submitted to the agency, some calling for approval of the project's needed rights of way, some opposing action, and still others criticizing methods and thoroughness of the report.
U.S. EPA's Region 9 has called for weaknesses to be addressed in the final report, expected this summer. In a Nov. 30 letter to the public lands agency, EPA said environmental impacts of pumping in the Snake Valley were "severe in magnitude, duration and scope" and recommended that BLM select a preferred alternative path that would avoid the most vulnerable areas in the Snake Valley and neighboring Spring Valley.
The Snake Valley is in a unique position because of its two-state spread. The nine wells proposed by the water authority would be on Nevada's side of the border, but the underlying aquifer would be affected in Utah, too. That's what has the Utah ranchers so worked up.
"We understand that we don't have a right to talk about what Nevada does with its water," said Glen Greenhalgh, resource coordinator for Juab County, which holds Partoun and Callao. "But when that affects our state and our county, then we have to speak up."
Nevada and Utah must reach an agreement on groundwater allocation before SNWA would be allowed to pump there; it's stipulated in the Lincoln County Conservation, Recreation and Development Act, passed by Congress in 2004.
A 2009 draft agreement evenly splits the 132,000 afy of groundwater in the basin but specifies how it should be managed. John Harja, former director of Utah's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office and a key player in negotiations, said in an interview that the state was "in a defensive role" in the process and insisted on safeguards for its residents. The agreement, still unsigned by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), calls for a 10-year study period of potential environmental impacts on the Snake Valley.