The project in the Basin and Range, as currently proposed, will use 115 to 195 pumps, spanning seven valleys in eastern Nevada, to fill a 235-mile-long, six-and-a-half-foot diameter pipeline that follows U.S. Highway 93 to Las Vegas. It won’t pump a single drop of water for at least a decade, but it has already kicked off what is sure to be an epic struggle between Las Vegas and rural Nevada.
The rural counties are at a phenomenal disadvantage. The Water Authority’s budget this year is $642.7 million. Meanwhile, White Pine County, home to Ely, was forced to ask the state to step in to manage its finances after it went broke earlier this summer. In addition to its economic might, Las Vegas holds 70 percent of the votes in the state Legislature. One potential champion for the rural counties — U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D, the Democratic leader in the Senate — has made only a tepid commitment to their cause, and critics are quick to point out that Reid’s son Rory is a county commissioner in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, and that he also sits on the board of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Nonetheless, rural Nevadans are rallying around the cry that this is a repeat of Los Angeles’ infamous water raid on the Owens Valley in the early 1900s, when the city secretly bought out farmers and shipped their water south, turning the valley into a dust storm-ravaged wasteland.
Many of the project’s most thoughtful opponents are veterans of the MX fight. One is Dean Baker, who runs a ranch in Snake Valley, on the Nevada-Utah border. Baker’s ranch stands in the shadow of Wheeler Peak and Great Basin National Park, on the northeasternmost fringe of the water project, in what he calls "the driest part of the driest state in the Union."
In the 1970s, Baker began buying center-pivot irrigation systems to water his land, then watched as the water they sprayed out simply evaporated without ever hitting the ground. He experimented for years, souping up his center pivots with a wizard’s array of special nozzles, and pushing more water through the machines, before he was finally able to put enough water on the ground to grow a crop.
Baker is one of three rural representatives on the 26-member advisory committee created by the Water Authority, where he’s one of the few voices questioning whether farmers’ irrigation water will disappear as Vegas pumps down the aquifer. Once a month, he flies his Cessna 182 to Las Vegas for committee meetings: "I keep asking them, ‘Is there any other project in the world at this elevation, with this precipitation, with this humidity, (that is) sustainable?’ "
Jo Anne Garrett, another MX veteran, has also been involved. Back in 1989, when Las Vegas first filed its water-rights applications, she helped convince White Pine County residents to tax themselves to underwrite the opposition’s legal efforts. Last year, after two White Pine County commissioners and the district attorney attempted to negotiate a water deal with Las Vegas, Garrett and two other county residents took to the streets with a recall petition. They got less than half the signatures needed to hold a recall, but voters ousted the two commissioners in that fall’s election; the district attorney is up for re-election next year.
The county hasn’t met with Las Vegas since, but the fight has begun to border on the desperate. There’s a little more than $100,000 left in the fund to fight Las Vegas, and earlier this year, White Pine county commissioner Gary Perea took the unusual step of asking Pat Mulroy for money so the county could hire somebody to fight her water project. Mulroy, not surprisingly, declined.
The science and the landscape are full of questions. A series of U.S. Geological Survey reports released in the 1990s raised concerns that, in spite of the immense size of the aquifer, only a fraction of its water can be sustainably pumped without permanently depleting it. The Water Authority originally applied for more than 800,000 acre-feet of water per year. Now, it says it can sustainably pump 125,000 to 180,000 acre-feet, skimming off only the pulse of "recharge" that the aquifer receives each spring and summer as snowmelt percolates down into the limestone.
This spring, the federal Bureau of Land Management began work on an environmental impact statement for the pipeline, noting that the project could affect desert tortoise, sage grouse, pygmy rabbits, and several species of endangered fish. Nevada state engineer Hugh Ricci will hold public hearings to help him decide whether to approve Las Vegas’ water applications, something which could happen within the next few months.
The U.S. Geological Survey is also working on a new estimate of how much water can be sustainably pumped from the aquifer (HCN, 9/13/04: A water-and-wilderness bill kicks up dust in Nevada). But that study won’t be finished until November 2007, and it won’t model the potential impacts of the Water Authority’s pumping on existing well users. Nor will it address the risks to the springs that dot all of eastern Nevada, and are some of the most ecologically important — and sensitive — places in the Great Basin.
"From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s just absolutely fascinating," says Jon Sjöberg, a Nevada Department of Wildlife supervisory biologist, describing the world of life that the aquifer supports. About 10,000 years ago, as the climate warmed, the salty lake that covered eastern Nevada began drying up. But a few vestiges of the saltwater ecosystem were caught by the freshwater springs as everything else evaporated away. In these isolated springs, a remarkable array of fish, snails and amphibians survived and evolved, creating the Great Basin’s legendary biological diversity.
Sjöberg offers the example of the White River springfish, a tiny creature averaging slightly more than an inch in length, which was placed on the federal endangered species list in the 1980s. There are five different subspecies of White River springfish in five springs strung over more than 100 miles between Ely and Las Vegas.
With such small populations in such isolation, "it doesn’t take much to affect them," says Sjöberg.
"We’re in a constant crisis mode, running from one disaster with one species to another. All you’re trying to do is keep them from going extinct," he says. He talks about using pickle buckets to rescue Pahrump pool fish from springs northwest of Las Vegas when they dried up after farmers started pumping nearby.
"We’re used to that," he says, but the groundwater project "has the potential to affect all of those resources collectively" — not just fish, but also mammals such as desert bighorn sheep and elk that depend on isolated water sources.
One big concern is that, in the fractured carbonates, water-level declines from the project’s wells can "propagate" along the fractures like cracks spreading across a windshield, possibly affecting springs hundreds of miles away.
The Department of Wildlife was an official "cooperator" in the BLM’s environmental impact statement until this June. Then, at the direction of Gov. Kenny Guinn’s office — and for reasons that the office has never convincingly explained — the agency withdrew from the process.
That has left Sjöberg sidelined, with plenty of questions. "This has to be done right, because you’re looking at something that is happening on a landscape scale. And that’s where it just kind of takes your breath away," says Sjöberg. "We spend a lot of time just staring at the wall going, ‘Oh shit. What do we do?’"