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Northern Nevadans Don't Want to Gamble With Their Water

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.

Nevada's valleys are majestic and arid, sloping floors covered in greasewood bushes and fields of alfalfa irrigated with springs or wells the ranchers have dug themselves. As Baker drives his land, antelopes, coyotes and jackrabbits, gathered at pools of water, are startled by the sound of his truck.

"This is a closed basin and it is in balance now," Baker said of Snake Valley. "The water is coming in through precipitation and going out through evaporation and transpiration of the plants. Nobody knows of any river underground where the water's going. It's here, and it's being used here."

Other counties along the pipeline route have formed agreements with Southern Nevada, but this summer White Pine County turned down $12.5 million from the water authority to drop its protests and cooperate.

The county could use the money. It's a depressed area, and thanks to financial mismanagement the government is under state receivership. Still, that doesn't matter to White Pine County Commissioner Gary Perea. "They could offer us 12 or 15 billion dollars, but what good is the money if there's nobody living here?" he said.

Perea wishes the city people would leave his corner of the state alone, the way he's had the good sense to do with them. "People live up in rural areas for a reason. They don't like big cities," he said. "We want to be independent. We want to take care of ourselves. To take the money from Las Vegas and endorse the project -- people did not want to do that."

Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, understands such resistance is political and cultural as much as environmental. "They've lived in their world forever," she said of the ranchers, some of whose families have worked the land for more than a century. "They feel disenfranchised. . . . All that anger finds its expression through this project."

Las Vegas recycles water and imposes conservation measures, but that's not enough, Mulroy said. "We don't have a network of streams. Southern Nevada has no backup," she said. "Nevada has to find a way to safely and sustainably develop groundwater resources. If they cannot do that, the entire state of Nevada can lock its doors."

Mulroy said the best way to prevent environmental damage is for the people of White Pine County to cooperate with her agency to monitor the effects of pumping. But activists scoff at the idea that they will have any power to change the water agency's plans.

"That's exactly what Mr. Mulholland said" about Owens Valley, said Bob Fulkerson, state director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, which is fighting the pipeline. William Mulholland, as head of the Los Angeles water department in 1904, conceived the idea of an aqueduct from the Owens Valley. "He had no interest in draining the valley, he had no interest in creating that wasteland," Fulkerson said. "He did not want that to happen, but that's what did happen because once the siphon was started it was impossible to turn it off."

"This is going to create a sacrifice zone of thousands of square miles so Las Vegas can continue to be the fastest-growing city in the United States," he added.

To Rothman, that calculation makes sense. "Simply put, water has infinitely more value in urban areas," he said. "Ranchers are an oligarchic anachronism, privileged by a world long gone."

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