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Rural ‘Water Warriors’ take on a water wrangler

  Thirty-five miles southwest of Las Vegas, on the California/Nevada border, Sandy Valley is a desert haven for free-living refugees from the urban rat race. The valley’s institutions range from Dust Devil Pizza to the Sky Ranch Airport — “A Flying Family Community” with Cessnas parked in people’s driveways — to what must be the world’s smallest Mormon church.

John Bacher, a cherubic former Manhattan real estate manager, retired to Sandy Valley in 1998. Sporting jeans and a “Water Warriors” T-shirt, Bacher points out the local landmarks from a rocky bajada, where cholla and barrel cactus bloom.

“That’s our dry lakebed. It’s actually great for fishing,” he quips. “You just need a good dry fly.”

Bacher’s T-shirt was inspired by the three-year struggle that’s been simmering over a well on the eastern edge of the valley, this one with the name “VIDDLER” welded on top by the locally hired well driller. The company’s name is spelled wrong, which might have been an early indicator that things wouldn’t go entirely smoothly for Vidler Water, a water-development company based in Carson City.

As Bacher tells the story, Vidler showed up with a drill rig in the middle of a weekend in the summer of 2000, and sank a well. “We found out about it after the graders and equipment started going up the road,” he says. “Nobody had checked the paper (to see Vidler’s notice of its plans to drill).”

Vidler had applied for rights to 2,000 acre-feet of water, and moved ahead with plans to sell the water to Primm, a clutch of casinos along I-15, just short of the California border.

But Sandy Valley’s residents fought back, claiming that pumping that water would drain the wells that homeowners and local farmers depend on, including the one that serves Bacher’s house, just three-quarters of a mile from the Vidler well. They filed 32 protests to Vidler’s application, and organized themselves as the Water Warriors.

Back at the Bacher house, John rifles through piles of legal documents as his wife, Beth, recounts the campaign. “We hired a lawyer and we searched around for other people to help us,” she says. A local hydrologist and a scientist from the Desert Research Institute in Reno donated their time to do a hydrologic study of Sandy Valley, and local residents chipped in to pay for tests to confirm that the Vidler well would tap the same water as Sandy Valley’s existing wells.

After the state engineer granted 415 acre-feet to Vidler in June 2002, the Water Warriors took his decision to court. The group raised money for its legal campaign with bake sales, barbecues, raffles — and sales of Water Warrior T-shirts.

This spring, Vidler filed another application for 2,000 acre-feet, and the Water Warriors parried again. As Beth licks the envelope for the group’s latest protest to the state engineer, she says, “(Vidler is) lining their pockets, whereas we’re sustaining life with this water.”

In reality, people in Sandy Valley are doing more than just “sustaining life”: The majority of the valley’s water now goes to farms that grow sod … for lawns in Las Vegas.