Maybe the Bureau of Land Management thought they could dodge two decades of Nevada water controversy by releasing a crucial decision just two days after Christmas. Last week’s approval of a water pipeline “right of way” puts the Southern Nevada Water Authority -- who hailed the decision as a "milestone" -- one step closer to breaking ground on the project, which would suck groundwater from beneath three eastern Nevada counties and pump it to Las Vegas. Ever since the plan was unveiled in 1989, it's been met by stiff resistance from ranchers, local governments, environmentalists, and Native Americans, who have issued tens of thousands of public comments saying that the environmental and economic costs will be severe and far-reaching.
Schell Creek Range as seen from southeast of Ely, Nev., just west of the project area.
The decision came on the heels of a Bureau of Reclamation report another BLM document that paints a dire future for the Colorado River basin if population growth and water use remain unchecked. For all the conservation measures it’s put in place, Las Vegas still can't get around the fact that 90 percent of its water comes from the Colorado. That's a scarily nondiverse portfolio, especially given that the BLM report says Colorado River supplies could fall short of demand by up to 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060. (That's the annual amount used by 6.4 million households.) For decades, that frightening prospect has fueled the authority's ambitions to tap water in other parts of the parched state. As HCN reported in 2009, the SNWA, led by the shrewd Patricia Mulroy, has spent millions buying up ranches and their water rights, even ending up with several thousand cows and sheep as a result.
The BLM was roped into the plan when in 2004 the SNWA applied for the "right of way" to build the pipeline -- which crosses federal land -- and related infrastructure. The pressure riding on the decision was notched up in March, when the Nevada state engineer granted 83,900 acre-feet of groundwater rights in Spring, Cave, Delamar, and Dry Lake valleys to the project. All it needed after that was federal permission to move that water. The BLM approval allows for 263 miles of 84-inch-diameter pipeline and 272 miles of power lines, plus several pump stations, electrical infrastructure, and a buried water storage reservoir -- all granted “in perpetuity.”
From the BLM Record of Decision, p11.
Excluded from the plan is the Snake Valley, a hotly contested region that straddles the Nevada-Utah border. Utahns have for years opposed what they see as a water grab. In 2009 Nevada proposed handing over water rights that would benefit southern Utah in exchange for the Snake Valley rights, but Utah has yet to sign onto the deal. The 100-mile-long valley has also been a focus of resistance because of its unique surface springs, which, as HCN reported in 2009, provide rare pockets of aquatic habitat in an otherwise barren landscape. If the groundwater there were pumped, conservationists argue, those springs would dry up.
But sparing the Snake Valley isn't much condolence to those concerned about the wider impacts of the pipeline. The Center for Biological Diversity wrote in a press release that the BLM's environmental impact statement indicates that 137,000 acres of wildlife habitat will be altered for the worse, that five feet of ground-level subsidence could occur over more than 240 square miles, and that groundwater levels could drop as much as 200 feet in some areas. The Great Basin Water Network, another activist group, has said that the resulting desertification could cause pollution downwind by sending 30 million tons of dust per year into the air.
The language in the BLM’s decision isn't much reassurance, either. The document acknowledges numerous potential impacts to ground and surface water, vegetation, and the livelihood of the region’s inhabitants. When it comes to vegetation, the document argues only that “there are no data to support the premise that all vegetation will cease to exist within the drawdown area.”
Critics of the pipeline claim there are other ways to survive the water squeeze. Former federal water planner Mark Bird wrote an op-ed in 2008 in which he listed 17 alternatives, including a water conservation contest: "Uncle Sam could buy Colorado River farmland water and then announce this new water will go to a large city that attains the greatest percentage water conservation.” The BLM’s Colorado River report also emphasizes conservation in its “call to action,” saying that “targeted investments in water conservation, reuse, and augmentation projects can improve the reliability and sustainability of the Colorado River system to meet current and future water needs."
The SNWA, however, seems set on making eastern Nevada a sacrifice zone with the justification that Las Vegas's freewheeling economy supports the rest of the state. The pipeline, authority head Mulroy told KLAS-TV, "is Nevadans taking care of Nevadans."
Marshall Swearingen is an intern at High Country News.
Images courtesy of flickr Creative Commons and Bureau of Land Management.