October 19, 2006
By John Ritter, USA TODAY
BAKER, Nev. — Rancher Dean Baker picks his way through greasewood and sedge to a shallow dirt depression that was once a small pond fed by a natural spring. Both have been dry for years, casualties, he says, of pumping that draws underground water to the surface to irrigate fields and water livestock.
Over a half-century, agriculture's needs have lowered the water table, Baker says, but it's nothing compared to what may be in store for this arid, sparsely populated, mile-high desert near the Utah border.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority wants to pump vast quantities of groundwater from rural eastern Nevada valleys and pipe it 250 miles south to Las Vegas, the nation's fastest-growing major metro area, a tourist mecca with a limited water supply strained by population and prolonged drought.
After hearings last month, a decision rests with State Engineer Tracy Taylor. More hearings on plans in other valleys are pending. The water authority aims to build a pipeline by 2015 and pump nearly 30 million gallons a year from 19 wells in Spring Valley alone.
At stake, ranchers say, are livelihoods and a delicate ecological balance on a landscape cursed with at most 8 inches of rain and snow a year.
"If they pull the water table down enough, this will be a dust bowl," says Baker, 66, whose family has raised cattle in Spring Valley since the 1950s. "It will completely change the economics of agriculture. It will also change the life of the 40 head of antelope that stay in that alfalfa field."
Those concerns are unfounded, water authority officials say. Nevada law prohibits impinging on existing water rights, says general manager Pat Mulroy. "It's emotion," she says. "It's regionalism. It's rural vs. urban. It's fear-based. Protecting that environment will always be of tantamount importance to us."
Since early settlers, water has been the West's scarcest and most valuable resource. Towns pumped water, just as ranchers did. Rivers, lakes and streams have been dammed, drained and diverted for decades and now offer little extra supply for expanding urban centers such as Salt Lake City, El Paso, Albuquerque, Phoenix and Tucson.
Now groundwater is the target, even if, as in Las Vegas' case, it'll cost $3 billion or more to get it and benefit one region at the expense of another.
"This is symptomatic of issues going on all over, particularly the Southwest," says Jeff Mount, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. "When you look at it on a bigger, multigenerational scale, we're basically mining these groundwater basins at rates that can't be sustained. When the water's gone, it's gone."
Farms and ranches consume 80% of Western water supplies yet generate less than 1% of states' gross domestic product, says Hal Rothman, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"The real question isn't whether water will be transferred from rural to urban use," he says. "The debate is over the terms of the transfer, how rural communities that cede water will derive fair and valuable benefits from it."
Opponents of the water authority plan say it's one more instance of water flowing uphill toward money, like Los Angeles' notorious "water grab" from the Owens Valley in the early 1900s. That diversion — basis of the 1974 movie Chinatown— allowed L.A. to grow but dried up a productive farm region.
"The parallels are stark," says Greg James, former director of the Inyo County, Calif., water department in the Owens Valley. "They're looking to build a pipeline, pump groundwater, and they're already acquiring ranchland."
State water laws and federal environmental regulations wouldn't permit a repeat of Owens Valley, but ranchers want a guarantee that if the land suffers, the pumps would be shut down. Otherwise, "by the time we see the effects of pumping, it will be too late," says Gary Perea, a Democratic commissioner in White Pine County.
The Mormon Church, based in Salt Lake City, owns water rights in Spring Valley and has asked the engineer to withhold approval until a U.S. Geological Survey study is finished next year.
The authority built a computer model to predict effects on the water table but didn't run it. When it was run by a National Park Service hydrologist, it showed a 150-foot drop over 75 years. Mulroy calls those results "hypothetical." John Bredehoeft, a hydrogeologist who testified for opponents, says "it would have been detrimental" to the authority's case.
Time is short, Mulroy says. The Las Vegas metro area — population 1.7 million, 20,000 new homes a year — relies on a share of Colorado River water stored in Lake Mead for 90% of its supply. Seven years of drought have lowered the lake to half its capacity. A year like 2002, when the river ran about a quarter of normal, "would invoke a crisis," Mulroy says.
The water authority is spending millions of dollars to entice homeowners to replace irrigated lawns with drought-tolerant plants — 70% of water consumption goes outdoors. A system captures, treats and returns water from indoor plumbing to Lake Mead.
Opponents say tougher conservation measures, including raising water rates as cities such as Tucson have done, could save as much as the authority plans to take from Spring Valley.
"That penalizes people who can't afford it," Mulroy says.
Ranchers may think Las Vegas should slow its growth, but that's a political non-starter in go-go southern Nevada. At the area's current growth rate, rural groundwater is a stopgap measure at best, says Matt Kenna, a lawyer with the Western Environmental Law Center representing opponents.
Many people believe that if the engineer rejects a water transfer or awards an amount too small to make the pipeline economical, the authority will ask Congress for a bigger share from the Colorado River.
When the river's flow was divided among seven states in 1922, Las Vegas was little more than a crossroads. Nearly a century later, 400 farmers in California's Imperial Valley still get 10 times more Colorado River water than Las Vegas does.