Las Vegas is a thirsty city in a state that’s entitled to a measly four percent of the Colorado River’s annual in flow. That means that it’s had to be at turns creative and bare-knuckled in getting the water it needs to keep up with explosive population growth. Lately it’s been leaning towards the bare-knuckled with a plan – described in this HCN cover story – to pump water out of the carbonate aquifers of Nevada’s Basin and Range country and pipe it hundreds of miles south to the city. The groundwater pumping would dry up farms and kill native vegetation that holds down the soil, possibly creating dust storms similar those that have plagued California’s Owens Valley. Not surprisingly, farmers and residents have teamed up with environmentalists to oppose the plan.
The latest installment in this craps versus crops drama came July 9, when state water engineer Tracy Taylor issued the second of three decisions on how much water Las Vegas will be allowed to pump if it goes forward with the project. He ruled that the city’s Southern Nevada Water Authority can take 18,755 acre-feet per year – about half of what it asked for – from Cave, Lake, and Delamar valleys. The ruling comes a bit more than a year after Taylor’s ruling on Spring Valley, in which he awarded Las Vegas 40,000 acre-feet – again, about half of what it wanted. The water from the four valleys combined could meet a tenth of Las Vegas’s current water needs – around 500,000 acre-feet per year – but won’t do much to make up for growth in water demand, given that the city expects to use more than a million acre-feet per year by 2050.
Hearings on Las Vegas’s final groundwater request – for 50,679 acre-feet per year from the Snake Valley – started July 15. Once again, the city is unlikely to get all the water it wants. The Snake Valley is home to Great Basin National Park, which means that the Interior Department may protest the pumping if it thinks that it will dry up ecologically-important springs or alter groundwater flows in the park’s caves. Perhaps more importantly, the valley extends over the Utah state line, which means that Utah water authorities have to sign off on the pumping.
If Las Vegas ends up with three half-victories in its water wars with the north, it will be tempting to bundle them into a narrative of reasonable compromise – of getting along with the neighbors and learning to share. But it’s equally possible that Taylor’s split-the-baby-down-the-middle decisions will produce the worst of all possible scenarios: enough pumping to inflict serious harm on northern Nevada, but not enough to make noticeable progress towards slaking Las Vegas’s thirst. The Southern Nevada Water Authority – and ultimately its ratepayers – will end up saddled with debt for a pipeline from the north that doesn’t transport nearly enough water to be cost-effective.
Just how much will the pipeline cost? Proponents say somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.5 billion; detractors argue that that actual costs will run well past $10 billion. The water authority has yet to do a detailed cost estimate, but it’s unclear whether pesky details like cost-effectiveness are going to slow them down. “It’s like Iraq,” says Simeon Herskovits, a lawyer representing pumping opponents in northern Nevada. “Once you’ve committed to something and put your credibility on the line it becomes very difficult to back away and take a fresh look.”