More Water for Las Vegas Means More Resentment in Rural Areas

One state bureaucrat has the power to decide whether Las Vegas can draw extra water from underneath the state’s eastern counties, a question that has long concerned environmentalists and aggravated a political rift.
by | January 4, 2012

By Jim Malewitz, Stateline Staff Writer

For Jason King, Nevada’s state engineer, the final months of 2011 were hardly a breeze. On top of his usual workload, he and his resource-strapped office, which manages parched Nevada’s precious water resources, oversaw six weeks of hearings on a controversial permit application, punctuated by often impassioned testimony from 82 witnesses. But 2012 will be more stressful. The longtime civil servant has just over three months to digest tens of thousands of documents and transcript pages as he prepares to answer a decades-old question: If the Mountain States keep getting drier, how will Nevada keep Las Vegas, its economic juggernaut, from going thirsty?

The Southern Nevada Water Authority, speaking for Las Vegas, thinks the solution lies beneath four valleys in Eastern Nevada, with a multibillion dollar pipeline that would pump valley water into Las Vegas. The plan sounds sensible to most business owners and developers in Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County, but Nevadans further east, particularly farmers and ranchers, fear the project would deplete already scarce resources, threatening their way of life.

Of the thousands of public comments King has been reading, those of Diane Chipman, a resident of the tiny town of Baker, are hardly unique. “If you steal our water from (rural Nevada), my well would run dry….There are hundreds of people in peril,” she writes in a letter to King. “Do you have the right to say you are better than we are? That we are just the so-called “Little People?”

King, who is not a politician, a judge or an appointee of the governor, is left essentially on his own to make a decision. In one sense, it’s “just another water rights application,” he tells Stateline. But then again, King says of the issue, “You cannot help but feel the pressure and the weight.”

Nevada is not the only Western state that will spend part of this year debating a large-scale and polarizing water project. There’s the Lake Powell water pipeline within Utah, and the Wyoming-to-Colorado pipeline that Wyoming Governor Matt Mead has vehemently opposed. But neither of these would come close to the price and scope of the Las Vegas pipeline, nor have they sparked such fierce opposition.

Supplying Las Vegas

Though an impressive snowmelt this spring boosted supply when it streamed down the Colorado River -- provider of 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water -- the region worries constantly about the effects of drought. Under current conditions, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) claims the region’s demand for water will eclipse supply by late in the next decade. And a study released this spring by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation found that climate change could reduce Southern Nevada’s share of the Colorado River by at least 7 percent each year.

If Las Vegas started to dry up, so would the state’s economy. The city’s metropolitan region houses some three-fourths of Nevada’s population and produces about 80 percent of its economic activity. That’s why the SNWA has long looked to build the 300-mile pipeline that would initially carry up to 41 billion gallons of water to the Las Vegas area each year. “It’s effectively a safety net,” says J.C. Davis, an SNWA spokesperson. “You don’t want to sit there and twiddle your thumbs like nothing’s going to happen.”

Davis says the project would be constructed only if the level at Lake Mead -- the Hoover Dam reservoir that stores Las Vegas’ water from the Colorado -- dwindles to especially low levels. “It may not be constructed for many years or decades,” he says.

To those in Southern Nevada’s huge gambling industry, such precaution makes sense, especially within the context of a beleaguered state economy that has been pummeled by the worst of the housing crisis. “Long-term uncertainty about water resources -- perceived or real -- severely undermine our ability to attract new industries, companies and jobs, writes Keith Smith, president and CEO of Boyd Gaming, in a letter to King. “Existing businesses can be impacted along with local and state tax revenues.”

Environmental impact

But ever since the project was first proposed in 1989, by what was then the Las Vegas Valley Water District, it has sparked fierce opposition, from environmentalists who worry about the impact that construction and pumping will have on state ecosystems, and from rural Nevadans who have dubbed it a “water grab” that will drain their resources.

The project “will unnecessarily and permanently destroy agriculture, the economy and the environment of Eastern Nevada as well as potentially create an irreversible health and safety debacle in the nature of dust particulate,” writes Jim Barbee, secretary of the Nevada Board of Agriculture, in the board’s public comments.

The SNWA has said that its withdrawals would not eclipse the rate of water recharge in the four valleys, leaving plenty of water available to farmers and ranchers. But critics remain unconvinced by the association’s calculations.

A study by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management found that the pipeline could lower some water tables between 100 and 200 feet over 75 years, drying out valley soil and harming shallow-rooted plants and irrigated agriculture. Several small springs and the species living in them could be a complete loss, according to the study.

“It’s very clear that there are impacts on these valleys,” says John Bredehoeft, a former hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey who was hired by the Great Basin Network, an advocacy group that opposes the pipeline. SNWA has put forth plans to strictly monitor the impact of withdrawals. But doing so with long-term accuracy is almost impossible, Bredehoeft says, because the act of pumping could alter hydrology in the valleys. “You don’t begin to see what the impacts are for a couple hundred years,” he believes.

Litigation likely

Whichever way Jason King rules, litigation is likely to follow. That’s what happened in 2008 after King’s predecessor, Tracy Taylor, granted part of SNWA’s request to tap into three Eastern Nevada valleys for water. A group of farmers, ranchers and environmentalists sued, resulting in a reversal of the ruling and a rare rebuke of the state engineer.

A state district court judge wrote in 2009 that Taylor acted “arbitrarily, capriciously and oppressively” in granting Las Vegas water rights without more extensive study, and was “simply hoping for the best while committing to undo his decision if the worst occurs.” The Nevada Supreme Court upheld the ruling the next year.

That recent history does little to reduce the political pressure on King, as his office sorts through the mounds of paper related to the project. As Bredehoeft puts it, “He’s in a real hot seat.”

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