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Slow-Motion Water Wars Split Western States

A thirst for water pits cities like Las Vegas against its rural neighbors



Wikimedia Commons/David_Vasquez

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.

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.

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.

But Snake Valley residents won't call that proposed delay a victory -- even if the agreement were signed. If the Snake Valley is spared -- or saved for later -- residents are still uneasy about the prospect of pumping in the basin next door.

"Stopping them from coming and drilling wells in Snake Valley isn't enough," said Anderson, the Callao rancher, "because if we turn our backs, they drill their wells in Spring Valley." Because water basins in the two valleys are interconnected, pumping in Spring Valley to the west would take water that could have otherwise ended up under Anderson's Snake Valley ranch.

No love for Vegas
From his office building a few blocks from Las Vegas' historic Fremont Street, Entsminger, the SNWA deputy manager, says he is resigned to the fact that he'll never win over many of the rural opponents like Anderson. "You're not going to convince everybody that this project is a good idea."

Davis, the spokesman, chimes in that opponents are too quick to paint Las Vegas as a bully in the water fight, using terms like "siphoning" and "water grab" to describe SNWA's pipeline proposal.

"The notion of a water grab is absolutely laughable," he said. "We're a public agency; we're not out here profiteering."

Las Vegas is often criticized as being inherently unsustainable. "Slow growth seems to be anathema to Las Vegas; it's growth at all costs," said Ferguson, the park superintendent.

Entsminger dismisses that accusation. Las Vegas is logically situated on major highways and railroads between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, he said, and people will continue to move there and to the rest of the Southwest. "People will still wake up in Milwaukee and get tired of shoveling snow," he said.

The water authority has tried other ways to manage water. Conservation efforts have been aggressive. Since 2003, more than 25,000 acre-feet of its wastewater was recovered for use on golf courses and to cool power plants.

Las Vegas has also explored a form of desalination exchange, in which the city would fund a desal plant on the Pacific Coast and, instead of transporting water over the distance, would trade it for additional Colorado River allocations.

Bright lights or beef?
But Entsminger worries about putting too much hope in desal, another project in the multibillion-dollar range and similarly fraught with regulatory challenges. Without the pipeline, Entsminger says, he cannot guarantee that the water authority can provide for the people of southern Nevada for the next 50 years, "and that has a chilling effect on the entire economy of the state."

Without a secure water supply, the state and local governments will have trouble selling bonds, the Las Vegas Strip will have less favorable deals when refinancing debt, and the area will struggle to attract major new businesses.

The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce has pushed for the pipeline's approval. So have Caesars Entertainment, Wynn Resorts, Zephyr Partners and plenty other Strip businesses.

"Our economic viability as a region and as an international tourist destination is dependent upon a reliable water source that will be available to accommodate any growth we may see into the future," said Kim Sinatra, senior vice president of Wynn Resorts, in a letter to BLM.

Davis, the spokesman, says a big part of his job is fighting the image problem Las Vegas has with opponents.

"They characterize Las Vegas as 'gambling, gluttony and girls.' I guess we're a victim of our own marketing," he said. But "mostly, it is middle-class people doing middle-class things, getting their kids to soccer games, and trying to get through their lives just like everybody else."

Anderson, the Callao rancher, insists that his contention with the project is not part of a culture war between urban and rural lifestyles. "I don't care if [the water] goes to casinos," he said, "if we're impacted, then it really needs to be studied out."

Generally even-tempered when speaking about the pipeline project, Anderson only occasionally reveals a bit of resentment toward to the glitz of the city: "Somebody's got to provide them the beef to put out on their buffet tables," he grunts.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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