Northern Nevadans Don't Want to Gamble With Their Water

In northern Nevada's rural Snake Valley, a proposed 250-mile pipeline would tap aquifers to bring water to Las Vegas in the southern part of the state. Valley residents and officials say there's no water to spare.
In northern Nevada's rural Snake Valley, a proposed 250-mile pipeline would tap aquifers to bring water to Las Vegas in the southern part of the state. Valley residents and officials say there's no water to spare. (By Sonya Geis -- The Washington Post)

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By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

WHITE PINE COUNTY, Nev. -- Las Vegas is a parched desert city in a four-year drought, with new residents pouring in at a rate of at least 5,000 per month. So water officials plan to tap a great system of aquifers that form underground lakes in a swath across Nevada, some of them hundreds of miles away.

But the water is not free for the taking. On top of the aquifers are ranches and small towns, where a small, tenacious group of rural residents are fighting hard to keep Las Vegas from sucking them dry.

"It's a question of values," said Dean Baker, a rancher with 2,000 head of cattle in White Pine County. "Will society accept drying up this environment to feed Las Vegas's money appetite?"

The battle is the latest in a long series of skirmishes between Western cities and rural areas over limited supplies of water and how it should be allocated. Typically, cities win. Coastal California, Phoenix and Salt Lake City all rely on distant groundwater supplies.

Such transfers of water from rural to urban areas "have not yet occurred in Nevada," said Hal Rothman, a professor of history at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "But they are beginning here."

The Colorado River provides 90 percent of Las Vegas's water, but the city lives on a diet, an allocation of water it was awarded decades ago, when Las Vegas was a whistle-stop. So the Southern Nevada Water Authority wants the water that lies underground to the north.

To carry the water to the households of Las Vegas, engineers propose a $2 billion hydra-headed pipeline stretching 250 miles. The water authority has already started buying ranch property in the county to access the water underneath. Water authority officials say there is enough water underground statewide to provide for the ranchers, plus cover about two-thirds of Las Vegas's annual water needs.

On Sept. 11, the Nevada state engineer will hold a hearing and then make a decision about how much water Southern Nevada can take. Legally, all the water under Nevada is a state resource, and the engineer must determine its best use.

White Pine County lies at the northern end of the proposed pipeline. Officials here are eyeing a lawsuit if the hearing doesn't go their way.

"I've watched the attitude of Southern Nevada, and it's like they've got gold fever," Baker said as he bounced down a dirt road in his truck. He has worked his ranch in Snake Valley for 50 of his 66 years. His three sons and their families work it with him.

"They say there's water here nobody's using. It's not that simple. There is no free lunch." Baker worries that the aquifer could be depleted, turning the area into a dust bowl.

The specter of California's Owens Valley looms over the area, as people recall the aqueducts that almost 100 years ago turned a lush agricultural community into an environmental disaster so that water could be delivered to Los Angeles.


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