« Return to this article

Know the West

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.


LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Few parts of the nation are drier than the Las Vegas Valley. Yet, like a circus performer catching bullets in his teeth, the city here flouts the terrors of the desert and has achieved its own sort of rowdy transcendence. 

Las Vegas "owes nothing to its surroundings," wrote historian Hal Rothman in his 2002 paean to the city, Neon Metropolis. Today, 1.7 million people — 70 percent of Nevada’s population — live in Las Vegas and its suburbs. Unlike more traditional Western resource-extraction economies, which reach far out into the countryside for their fuel, Las Vegas tends to generate its wealth in place: The city’s $60 billion-a-year economy is dominated by the service industry — casinos and tourism — and its environmental footprint is remarkably small.

In fact, as the city has grown, its economy has come to serve as a life-support system for much of the rest of the state: Thanks to Las Vegas, 10 of Nevada’s 17 counties are guaranteed a fixed amount of tax revenue from the state, far more than they actually generate themselves.

Las Vegas’ phenomenal success has led boosters such as Rothman, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas history professor, to tout it as a model for the New West. But the city’s economy, powerful as it is, is perched atop a precarious pedestal: A tiny slice of the Colorado River’s water.

That doesn’t particularly concern Rothman. "No American city has ever ceased to grow because of a lack of water," he wrote in Neon Metropolis, "and it’s unlikely that Las Vegas will be the first."

"The only genuinely determining factor in acquiring water," he argued, "is cost." And money, Rothman wrote, "is no problem in Las Vegas."

As if to prove him right, Las Vegas is now pushing forward with what will be the biggest groundwater-pumping project ever built in the United States: a $2 billion effort that will pump more than 58 billion gallons of water out of the ground every year. The project will reach far beyond the glitter of Las Vegas into the valleys of eastern Nevada’s Basin and Range country, ultimately extending as far north as the area around the high-desert town of Ely.

When the play of light across the Great Basin is just right, it reveals the pockets of water that seem to disappear in the glare of the midday sun: stingy seeps, shy rivulets that poke their way across the desert, great limpid pools of water bubbling into the light. Those are all mere hints of the watery treasure trove that lies beneath the entire area: An enormous aquifer that spreads across some 100,000 square miles of eastern Nevada and western Utah.

Las Vegas has always pushed the limits harder than any other place, because it has had to — and because it can. "When you’ve got a city the size of Las Vegas, that’s growing as fast as it is, it’s hard to estimate what’s going to be economically infeasible," says Mike Dettinger, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist who authored some of the first comprehensive studies of the aquifer. "Anything’s possible if you have a big-enough city at the other end of the pipeline."

Las Vegas may, however, have reached the tipping point, beyond which its continued growth can only come at the expense of the rest of the state. The groundwater project in the Basin and Range will pry open a place of tremendous biological diversity that includes Great Basin National Park, three national wildlife refuges, at least three state and five federally listed threatened and endangered species, and a host of rural farming and ranching communities. Tapping the aquifer could unravel the tenuous hydrologic, ecological and political equilibrium in the Great Basin, giving the lie to boosters’ claims that Las Vegas is the city of the future. And, ultimately, the water project may be a prelude to an all-out war for the waters of the Colorado River.

The fight building over Nevada’s groundwater might never have started, if not for a space-age nuclear weapons program. In the late 1970s — at the same time he was hoping to create a legacy as a champion of arms control — President Jimmy Carter backed the MX missile program, a plan to shuffle 200 intercontinental ballistic missiles between 4,600 shelters in the Great Basin. The shell game was essentially a bluff, meant to force the Soviets to the negotiating table or risk blowing their entire nuclear wad shooting missiles at empty bunkers.

To the rural Nevadans who were going to be on the receiving end of a project designed to draw Soviet fire, the MX program made less sense. Environmentalists, Indians, ranchers and academics allied to mount a fight that swept the state. Steve Bradhurst, who directed the fight against the MX program for the governor’s office, says, "Wherever you went, particularly in rural Nevada, you’d see stop signs … you’d see ‘STOP,’ and then people would paint on ‘MX’ underneath."

In 1981, Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, a close friend of and the campaign chairman for Ronald Reagan, prevailed upon the newly elected president to ax the program.

Although the program never put a single missile in the desert, the search for the water it would have required significantly advanced scientists’ understanding of the desert’s aquifers.

In most of the eastern Great Basin, there are two aquifers, one on top of the other. For more than a century, farmers have tapped the one closest to the surface, which is made up of water caught in the sand and gravel that has filled in the valley bottoms. But below that lies the real prize: the deep carbonate aquifer, so called because the water is contained within massive bands of limestone. Several million years ago, the geologic faulting that created Nevada’s Basin and Range province took what was then a 50-mile-wide band of limestone, broke it into splinters, and smeared it out across the Great Basin. The fractures in the rock are packed with water.

As part of its investigations for the MX program, the Air Force drilled a series of wells that reached down into the carbonate aquifer. Those wells soon became fodder for the kinds of legends normally associated with deranged conquistadors seeking cities of gold in the desert. Dettinger, the USGS hydrologist, says one MX well, north of Las Vegas, "hooked into some sort of crack that went God knows where, and it produced like crazy." After that, he says, "there was a tendency to imagine that if you put a well into the carbonate, it would just make water." 

Back in 1922, the seven states along the Colorado River met to negotiate the Colorado River Compact. The Compact divvied up the river’s water and came to serve as the foundation for a complex set of agreements and legal rulings known among water managers, with a sort of Ten Commandments reverence, as "The Law of the River."

At the time, Nevada (which, practically speaking, meant Las Vegas) had less bargaining power than any of the six other states — California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. Las Vegas was just a miserable little rail stop back then, and in all the years since, the city has been bedeviled by one stark fact: It walked away from the negotiations with just 300,000 acre-feet of water per year, a measly 4 percent of the water in the Compact. (One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough water for two homes in Las Vegas for a year.)

By the 1980s, when a string of record-breaking growth years began, Las Vegas was beginning to feel the pinch. In 1989, the metropolitan area, whose population was just shy of three-quarters of a million people, grew by more than 61,000 — an astounding 8 percent.

The same year, Vegas hired Patricia Mulroy as the general manager of what would become the Southern Nevada Water Authority (HCN, 4/9/01: The water empress of Vegas). Mulroy immediately made it a personal crusade to ensure that the city had enough water to continue growing. And on Oct. 17, 1989, she made her first move toward the Basin and Range. Mulroy filed water-rights applications with the state for over 800,000 acre-feet of groundwater — more than twice the city’s Colorado River allocation, and enough to supply almost 1.7 million new homes.

Rural Nevadans reacted as if they were under Soviet attack, filing more than 4,000 protests with the state engineer and assembling a legal team that included former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, who would go on to serve as U.S. secretary of the Interior.

In response, Mulroy turned her attention elsewhere, and put the project on hold. Over the next decade, Vegas proved itself more adept than any other city in the West at digging change out of the couch. The Water Authority worked to increase water efficiency in Las Vegas, and began offering a dollar-a-square-foot bounty to the city’s residents to rip out their lawns, an effort that has resulted in the removal of 64 million square feet of grass. The city has also perfected a watery sleight of hand to stretch its meager share of the Colorado as far as possible: It pumps far more than 300,000 acre-feet out of Lake Mead each year, but treats its wastewater and returns it to the reservoir for re-use by California and Arizona.

During the 1990s, Mulroy also began talking with the six other Colorado River states. She called for a "major rethinking" of the way the river is managed, and she courted the other states in an attempt to buy some of their water (HCN, 2/21/94: Las Vegas wheels and deals for Colorado River water). Mulroy won the ability to "bank" some water in Arizona for drought years, but her call for changes on the river met a cool reception — particularly from Colorado, which has long styled itself as the enforcer of order on the river.

At the time, Colorado was in an enforcing kind of mood. For more than 40 years, California had been using more than its share of the river. Finally, in the 1990s, Colorado successfully led the Upper Basin states — which also include Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — in demanding that it stop (HCN, 5/21/01: Quenching the big thirst).

Las Vegas’ relentless growth was proving equally worrisome. In 2001 alone, the city added more than 90,000 residents. The Upper Basin began to talk about forcing Vegas to live within its Colorado River allocation; when Mulroy came knocking, asking for more water, the other states sent her home to deal with her own problem.

Mother Nature, meanwhile, was putting a finer point on things. A major drought had started on the river in 1999, and 2002 brought a frying-pan-to-the-head moment. That year, the Colorado River received only a quarter of its average runoff.

Mulroy says that when river managers ran computer models during the 1990s to predict the likelihood of drought, "there was zero probability that a drought of this magnitude would hit. Nobody anticipated it."

It was clear that Mulroy was running out of options. Once again, she turned her attention to the Basin and Range country, and the hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water that the city had claimed.

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?’"

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.