Squeezing Water from a Stone

Damned with a tiny share of the Colorado River, and running dry, Las Vegas sets its sights on the driest part of the driest state in the Union.

  • Sixty-five percent of the water in the Las Vegas groundwater project will come from Spring Valley, pictured here, and Snake Valley to the east

    Stephen Trimble
  • Deep Carbonate Aquifer

    Diane Sylvain
  • Patricia Mulroy, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is committed to ensuring that Las Vegas has enough water to continue growing

    Sam Morris, Las Vegas Sun
  • Dean Baker wonders whether his irrigation water will disappear if Las Vegas starts pumping from the aquifer

    Matthew Minard, Las Vegas Sun
  • Longtime Nevada activist Jo Anne Garrett

    Matthew Minard, Las Vegas Sun
  • This spring, in the White River Valley south of Ely, is home to White River springfish

    Matt Jenkins

Page 4

Only a little more than a century ago, groundwater hydrology was seen as something of the occult, and despite great advances in the science, it still requires a certain willingness to feel your way forward toward the answers.

"The bottom line," says Mulroy, "is even the most sophisticated hydrologic modeling is nothing more than an educated guess."

Jeff Johnson, the Water Authority’s senior hydrologist, says that "the next step is going in and actually developing the resource, through wells and a pipeline, in order to try to refine some of those numbers."

The Water Authority is already part way into a small-scale trial run in Coyote Spring Valley, an empty expanse of Joshua trees and creosote bush 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas, on the edge of the Desert National Wildlife Range. The state engineer is requiring the Authority to test-pump for several years to determine the effects on the aquifer before he’ll consider granting full rights.

"Right now, the philosophy is, we’re going to start slow, pump a certain amount of water, and see what happens to the springs," says Bob Williams, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s field supervisor for Nevada. Williams is responsible for the bevy of federal wildlife refuges in the state, and for protecting plants and animals on the federal endangered species list such as the White River springfish.

The Water Authority, Fish and Wildlife Service, and several other parties are funding studies of the Moapa dace, another endangered native fish in the area, as well as restoring habitat and removing predatory invasive fish. "We’re trying," says Williams, "to reduce one threat as we bring another on."

The Water Authority says it will use a similar pump-and-monitor strategy for the groundwater project in the Basin and Range. "We don’t want to go in and pump for 10 years and then, gee, it dries up and is gone. That doesn’t serve anybody’s purpose," says Johnson. "The idea here is, go in, develop the resource, do it conservatively, and then manage it for long-term viability, indefinitely."

But the strategy is not without risk. "The but," says Williams, "is if you start pumping, and in maybe two years or five or 10, you start seeing (a water-level decline), can you turn it off fast enough to actually stop the effects?"

Dean Baker doubts that "turning it off" will even be an option. He talks about the tremendous investment that Las Vegas is making in the pipeline, and is skeptical that the Water Authority would happily walk away if the project were found to adversely affect water levels.

"If they build that pipeline," he says, "the urge will be overpowering to keep it full." 

Clearly, there are simpler — and far less expensive — solutions on the Colorado River. Even six years into a drought, there is still a lot of water on the river. Some is water that the Upper Basin has rights to but still doesn’t use. Much is water being used by farmers — whether on alfalfa fields in Wyoming or asparagus farms in Southern California’s Imperial Valley — that Las Vegas could conceivably buy. The Imperial Valley alone receives 3.85 million acre-feet a year.

"If we could work out some deal, or some agreement, between the basin states where Nevada could get more water," says Williams, "that would be better than to build this pipeline and run the risk of so much environmental — I don’t want to use the word ‘damage’ — but potential for environmental concerns."

For now, however, that water remains beyond Pat Mulroy’s reach. Mulroy maintains that the Basin and Range groundwater project is simply an effort to develop "a plumbing system that is separate and apart from the Colorado River." But she is largely being forced to pursue the project, with all its uncertainties, because there are problems on the Colorado that she hasn’t yet been able to crack.

At the same time, the groundwater project itself is beginning to show signs of strain, albeit subtle ones. The environmental impact statement on the pipeline, originally due out next spring, is, according to Mulroy, "kind of in a stall mode right now." The study will likely be revamped to assess the impacts of another water project to the south in Lincoln County (HCN, 8/4/03: Pipe Dreams); the manager of the study announced that he is quitting this fall, after it became clear that it will probably take at least three more years to redo it.

Meanwhile, the pressure is growing. Last year, Las Vegas added more than 35,000 houses and nearly 95,000 people. New projections, released this August, show that the population will grow even faster than previously anticipated. Based on those updated numbers, the Water Authority says that its existing supplies will allow Las Vegas to continue to grow until 2013. But the Authority is now facing a widening gap between that year and when it can lay its hands on its next big shot of water. Under the most optimistic projections, the groundwater project was scheduled to come online in 2015; now, it may not do so until several years after that. Mulroy is pursuing other options (see story, page 13), but those are even more politically fraught.

That raises two scenarios. Las Vegas, contrary to Hal Rothman’s claims, could be the first American city to stop growing because of a lack of water. But a far more likely scenario is that Mulroy will be forced back to the Colorado and its as-yet-uncracked challenges.

In the past, she urged the other states to "rethink." This time, she may invoke the Colorado River equivalent of the nuclear option, and file a lawsuit asking that the Colorado River Compact be declared null and void. "If there is no way that the Compact can accommodate Nevada, then Nevada has no choice but to consider the Compact broken," she says. "I think we’re all trying to avoid going to court, but in truth of fact, Nevada is backed into a corner."

Because the Compact is essentially a treaty between states, any challenge to it will go directly before the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s the absolute last place any of the states wants to be: While every state would like a shot at a bigger slice of the river, no state is willing to risk losing some of its entitlement in court — especially in the Supreme Court, beyond which there is nowhere to appeal.

But Nevada has almost nothing to lose. Because Las Vegas has, far and away, the tiniest cut of the river — that paltry 4 percent — it has far more incentive than anyone else to go for broke. "What are you gonna do?" asks Mulroy. "Take our 300,000 acre-feet away?"

In past negotiations, the other states have insisted that Mulroy leave no stone unturned at home before she seeks more Colorado River water. The groundwater project may, then, be Mulroy’s effort to show that Nevada has exhausted every option within its borders, a sort of pre-emptive strike to neutralize the other states’ arguments before the Supreme Court. But it may also be Mulroy’s own MX-worthy stratagem, one final effort to force the other states to the negotiating table.

The prospect of a date in court gives the six other states tremendous incentive to help Las Vegas find a solution to its problems. The states’ representatives have been meeting at least once a month since January in an effort to do just that.

They are, however, also hedging their bets. Colorado has long maintained a special $2 million fund to defend its Colorado River water rights. Now, Arizona is preparing a comparable war chest.

Nevada, oddly, is making no such special preparations. But as Hal Rothman is so fond of pointing out, while Las Vegas may be short on water, it has plenty of what really matters.

"If we have to go to court," Mulroy says archly, "we’ve got the money."

Matt Jenkins is a High Country News Contributing Editor.

A sidebar article, "‘Tributary issue' could force a seven-state showdown," accompanies this story.

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