Vegas forges ahead on pipeline plan

Great Basin pumping project is closer to reality

  • Huge underground water-flow systems underlie much of the Great Basin, as shown on this map. A study published in 2007 by the United States Geological Survey, which focused on the areas outlined in brown, was intended to better understand how the systems work -- and how the proposed Southern Nevada Water Authority pumping project would affect them.

    Sources: USGS; SNWA
 

When Marc Reisner updated his landmark book Cadillac Desert in 1992, he mistakenly referred to the "forceful woman" who heads the Las Vegas-based Southern Nevada Water Authority as Patricia Mulwray. Her name is actually Patricia Mulroy.

Reisner's mistake might have been a Freudian slip: Hollis Mulwray is a character in the movie Chinatown who is based on William Mulholland, the powerful founder of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Mulholland occupies a special place in the pantheon of Western water honchos, as both visionary and villain. He is best remembered for his audacious, and very secret, plan in the 1920s to buy up water rights in the Owens Valley and ship the water to L.A.

Mulroy understandably bristles at any reference to Chinatown. Yet she has achieved a degree of power that might even make Mulholland envious. Mulroy has largely set the terms of Western water over the past two decades. She has challenged what she calls the conservative "belt-and-suspenders" mindset that has traditionally prevailed among Colorado River water bosses. And, most controversially, she has led a two-decade-long effort to build a massive groundwater project that will tap huge aquifers lying beneath the Great Basin in eastern Nevada and pipe billions of gallons of water to Las Vegas.

This August, the state governments of Nevada and Utah announced that they had put one more piece of the project into place. They released an agreement that divides the water beneath the Snake Valley, on the Nevada-Utah line, between the two states, and that also delays for a decade the legal formalities needed to complete that final part of the groundwater project.

The announcement touched off a furor in Snake Valley. "We only got about a week's notice, and it left us scrambling to try to understand the agreement," says Mark Ward, an attorney for the Utah Association of Counties.

The agreement apportions the remaining water in Snake Valley 7-to-1 in Nevada's favor and "practically eliminates future development in Snake Valley," says Kathy Walker, the chairman of the Millard County Commission. Since the agreement was released, she says, "we've been racking up some serious miles" in an effort to change the terms of the deal. 

Some pipeline opponents, however, see the agreement as a reprieve of sorts. Denys Koyle, who owns the Border Inn casino on a lonely stretch of Highway 50 on the Nevada-Utah border, says, "When I saw it, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh: We've got 10 more years.' I've been saying every day we buy is a big victory."

The hoopla over the most recent development in the groundwater saga obscures a larger reality. Patricia Mulroy has tackled the groundwater project with far less secrecy than William Mulholland would have used. Still, over the past three years, she has moved to lock in the water she needs for the project with remarkable finesse. The Southern Nevada Water Authority now has at least 37 billion gallons of water lined up for the project, which will span seven valleys on the east side of Nevada, from Coyote Springs Valley to Spring Valley, and Snake Valley on the Nevada-Utah line.

"We already have the necessary water rights to go all the way to Spring Valley," says Mulroy.

But even as the Water Authority has amassed the permits it needs to fill the pipeline with water, unsettling questions have emerged regarding the project's impacts on desert springs ecosystems. And one of Mulroy's own scientists says her agency is hiding the effects that groundwater pumping will have on the Great Basin.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...