Running on empty in Sin City

by Matt Jenkins

Three weeks of contentious hearings are now underway to decide whether Las Vegas may suck water from a giant aquifer below the arid Great Basin to slake its growing thirst. The Southern Nevada Water Authority’s groundwater project is the biggest ever proposed in the United States, and will require installing up to 195 pumps over a nearly 8,000-square-mile area of eastern Nevada near the town of Ely.

For many people in this sparsely settled region, the idea of tapping the state’s signature Basin and Range country to fuel Las Vegas’ growth frenzy is galling. But the stakes ultimately reach far beyond the Silver State’s boundaries.

Las Vegas relies on water from the Colorado River, but growth has outpaced its share of the river. Patricia Mulroy, the head of the Water Authority, has repeatedly threatened to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to grant more of the river’s water to Nevada. That is a disastrous prospect for the six other states that depend on the Colorado — California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming — which are also feeling the pinch of tight supplies.

Recently, the states have made the groundwater project the linchpin of a tenuously negotiated peace on the river. Colorado’s representative, Scott Balcomb, says, "The only way to head off significant shortage in the Lower Basin" — Nevada, Arizona and California — "or a severe confrontation, or both, is for the Lower Basin to seize the initiative and start developing new sources of water."

By augmenting Las Vegas’ supply of water, the groundwater project could ease the pressure on the river and reduce the likelihood of a legal fight. This will allow the Colorado River states to avoid, at least for now, the growing evidence that over the long run, there simply is not enough water in the river to fulfill the state-by-state allocations made in the complex body of law governing the river. But by placing the groundwater project at the center of their agreement, the states have hitched their collective future to the project’s success. If it fails, the states will likely end up in the biggest legal battle ever fought over the Colorado River.

Signs of stress

"It is my job to protect almost 2 million people, 860,000 jobs and 32,000 businesses," says Mulroy. Those numbers are rising. In recent years, as many as 100,000 new residents a year have moved to Las Vegas. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has managed to scoop up enough water from other sources to continue growing at projected rates until sometime between 2013 and 2016. Then it will need groundwater from the Great Basin.

If the groundwater project is not approved, Mulroy says that even current residents will be in trouble. Las Vegas relies on the Colorado River for 90 percent of its needs, but after six years of drought, the river’s two main reservoirs are half empty and may never fully fill again. "Even if this community stopped growing tomorrow, we would still be looking to this project," says Mulroy. "This community is at risk."

In the weeks leading up to the current hearings before Nevada’s top water regulator, state engineer Tracy Taylor, the tension was palpable. According to an Aug. 16 article in the Las Vegas Sun, Mulroy suggested that the governor could remove Taylor from office if he ruled against the groundwater project.

Mulroy says the Sun took her comments out of context: "Never in my wildest dreams did I intend for that to be an inference of a threat." But for many rural Nevadans, the incident only bolstered their conviction that the Water Authority will stop at nothing to push its project through.

Federal negotiations

At the state engineer’s hearings, the Water Authority is facing off against a coalition of rural residents and environmental advocates. They argue that only by pumping far less water than it wants can Las Vegas make the project work without harming the environment. Earlier this summer, the Water Authority’s attorneys asserted that Taylor had no authority to consider the project’s impacts on the environment. They also sought to disqualify nearly every single witness and piece of evidence submitted in opposition to the project. Taylor denied both motions.

"(The Water Authority has) submitted folders and folders worth of materials, and have these huge witness lists," says Western Environmental Law Center attorney Matt Kenna, who represents the project’s opponents. "But when you look through it all, you realize there’s very little science in there."

One major player will likely be absent from the hearings: the federal government. When Las Vegas originally filed its applications for groundwater in 1989, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management lodged protests with the state engineer’s office, claiming that the project could destroy rare desert springs and the fish and wildlife they support. Now, however, an Interior Department negotiating team is finalizing an agreement with the Water Authority under which the government will drop its protests. In exchange, the Water Authority will fund a program to monitor groundwater levels and the project’s effects on wildlife.

Bob Williams, the state supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says that cooperating with the Water Authority will help his agency set the terms of development. "We’re going to get a lot more out of working together than if we’re in a more adversarial position" at the state engineer’s hearings.

The author, HCN’s West Coast correspondent, won the 2006 James V. Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism for his Sept. 19, 2005, cover story about Las Vegas’ plans for Great Basin groundwater.

This article was made possible with support from the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation and the Jay Kenney Foundation.

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