July 5, 2008

Utah-Nevada Water Standoff Quiet, Fierce

By Patty Henetz, The Salt Lake Tribune

Jul. 5--BAKER, Nev. -- On moonless nights here in the Utah-Nevada borderlands of Snake Valley, the naked eye can see five planets, countless stars and the great swath of the Milky Way.

Climb the hill to Great Basin National Park and one can see the nighttime glow of Las Vegas, whose leaders say their sprawling city must have the water under Snake Valley -- or wither and die. And they are coming for it, making plans for a 285-mile pipeline to tap the aquifer that stretches from Salt Lake City to Death Valley and take the water south.

At the same time, Utah wants to build a pipeline on Lake Powell to suck up Colorado River water and send it northward to growing desert communities before it gets anywhere near Glitter Gulch.

For now, the two driest states in the nation are in a quiet standoff, fitfully negotiating or scuffing lines in the sand.

Eventually, though, the outcome of this tale of two pipelines, begun with an agreement struck 86 years ago to share the Colorado and now groaning under rapid population growth and climate distress, could shake the foundations of Western water law.

Ask Dean Baker and Gary Perea to show you around Snake Valley and they take you to a grassy patch of federal land called Antelope Corral, where animals -- perhaps coyotes or badgers -- have dug a hole about six inches across to reach water a little more than a foot down. It looks like desperation. The animals would have to force their heads or entire bodies down the hole to get a drink.

Not that long ago, this part of Antelope Corral was a waist-deep pond.

To Baker, a second-generation hay and cattle rancher, the animals' water hole stands as a fair example of what could happen to this west desert region if Las Vegas gets to build its pipeline.

Just to drive home the point, Baker leads the way up a dirt road soft as talc to a windswept 50-acre patch of scrubby sand piles and a few rusty square nails, the scant remains of a farm settled long ago. Across the road a ways is the Eskdale ranching and religious community, surrounded by a forest of tall, lush trees.

There was a trade-off, Baker says: Loss for an individual rancher whose time was up anyway meant gains for the larger population of Eskdale, whose well pumping most likely caused the vegetation that once covered the ghost ranch to dry up and die.

At least the transaction took place within the boundaries of the community the town of Baker anchors, Baker and Perea say. It's something people here and neighbors, Utahns and Nevadans have accepted together.

But when Las Vegas tries the same logic to justify buying up water rights in this remote rural area to feed its nonstop urban growth, Baker and Perea object.

"They're taking the potential for growth in this valley down to Las Vegas," Baker says.

"We should be able to have a future and live out here," says Perea, a member of the White Pine County water district board, former county commissioner and current candidate for a new term. "There's a balance. But if you take all the water out, it's way out of whack."

The proposed Southern Nevada Water Authority pipeline could carry away 80,000 acre-feet of groundwater each year and would imperil every one of the valley's 600 or so residents, they say.

If the aquifer level drops 50 or 100 feet, which Utah water officials say is entirely possible, the roots of the sedge, rabbit brush and greasewood that hold down the soil couldn't reach the water. Dust storms could boil up from the basin and blanket the Wasatch Front, already struggling with degraded air quality.

A month earlier, during an interview in her office, Southern Nevada Water Authority manager Patricia Mulroy made similar arguments against the 158-mile pipeline Utah wants to build from Lake Powell to feed growth in Washington, Iron and Kane counties.

SNWA, a coalition of five water conservancy districts, is housed in the gleaming Molasky Corporate Center in downtown Las Vegas. But even at 16 stories, the office tower is nearly lost in the chaos of red dust and cranes and construction of new casinos, hotels, residences and corporate and retail centers near the spaghetti bowl confluence of Interstate 15 and Highway 95.

Corporate gambling means billions of dollars to Nevada. Every new casino hotel hires 4,000 new workers, who need houses and shopping centers and schools and roads. Las Vegas' growth is Nevada's only economic engine. It needs more water, and there's plenty of money for the effort, Mulroy said.

The day of the interview, a dust storm shrouded the city. Mulroy said when she first looked outside, she thought it was fog, or something was wrong with her eyes. But that's just how it is here, she said.

Mulroy quickly ran through the talking points she has uttered repeatedly over the years to multiple news outlets in fierce defense of her arid city's future. She ticked off the historic Colorado River water-shortage-sharing agreement the seven Colorado Basin states signed last year, the effects of climate change on the river flows, the "world of hurt" Los Angeles and San Diego are in due to abysmal runoff from the Sierra Nevada, Las Vegas' dedication to better water conservation and the fact that more people work in a single Vegas casino than live in all of Snake Valley.

She brushed off Utah's concern about Snake Valley's fate should the Nevada pipeline go forward. The project won't hurt the ranchers, she said.

So, given that the Colorado River is overallocated -- that is, there is far more water promised on paper than the river actually produces -- given the needs of populous downstream states, given Las Vegas' imperative to grow, given that the Powell pipeline is planned for people who have yet to arrive in southern Utah, Mulroy said it would be "unreasonable" to develop the Lake Powell pipeline.

Up until now, Mulroy said, Utah has had the luxury of time, the ability to look only to its own needs. That has changed. "They have to become part of a larger system," she said.

"There's not enough water to say, 'This is mine, this is yours,' " Mulroy said. "Neither Utah nor Nevada has time to go to court."

She smiled.

Winston Churchill once famously noted that observing Russian politics was like watching dogs fight under a carpet, an apt comparison to what's going on now between Nevada and Utah.

The states demand to have a say over each other's projects.

Indian tribes also insist that they be heard. Fermina Stevens, spokeswoman for the Elko TeMoak Band of the Western Shoshone said the Bureau of Indian Affairs in January signed an agreement that the tribe wouldn't oppose the Snake Valley drawdown. But the BIA -- part of the Interior Department, which is managing the Snake Valley environmental analyses -- didn't talk to the tribes first.

"The Western Shoshone people have always asserted Nevada is ours," Stevens said. "It never has been legally ceded to the United States. Except the United States is not willing to recognize that, of course."

Ona Segundo, chairwoman of the Kaibab Band of Paiutes in Pipe Spring, Ariz., said they were surprised to learn the Lake Powell pipeline would cut through their reservation. After the tribe objected, engineers working for Utah and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission moved the alignment on the map. But that doesn't mean the tribe can't weigh in.

As part of a standard federal environmental-impact study public comment period, Mulroy this month sent a letter to FERC claiming the power agency lacked expertise with the kind of environmental analyses necessary for the Lake Powell pipeline.

In a June 19 e-mail, Mulroy told The Tribune that while "Utah is certainly entitled to utilize its apportionment" of the Colorado River, "SNWA is simply concerned about the impacts of a major water-supply project that will affect two rivers -- the Colorado and the Virgin -- that serve as major water supplies to southern Nevada."

Launce Rake, a Las Vegas SNWA critic and opponent of the Snake Valley project, laughed at Mulroy's letter.

"She's arguing there are going to be significant impacts from building a pipeline," Rake said. "Hello! Great god of irony, slay me."

Utah lawmakers and local elected officials object to the Snake Valley proposal because they reckon the resultant lowering of the water table and ensuing dust storms would harm Utahns' respiratory health and destroy ranching in the southwestern part of the state. They want Congress to spend $6 million or more to redo the U.S. Geological Survey's study of Snake Valley basins.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said Utah lawmakers' push for further federal studies is just an attempt to grab Nevada's water.

Countered Utah Department of Natural Resources chief and former state legislator Mike Styler: "Nevada is free to do whatever it wants with its water. . . . They know any water brought to St. George will help Las Vegas because any return goes into the Virgin River."

Building the Lake Powell pipeline, Mulroy said during the interview, will take an act of Congress. Still, Mulroy said, "there are no swords out."

About water

This summer, The Salt Lake Tribune is exploring Utah's water challenges. Previous installments have provided an overview of the issues, explored the complex world of water rights, viewed the challenges the state faces as it seeks to accommodate growth in the face of finite water resources and scrutinized dam safety. To see the previous installments, go to www.sltrib.com

--TODAY: Water and politics.

--NEXT: Water and the environment.

Two pipelines, by the numbers

NEVADA: In April 2007, Nevada State Engineer Terry Taylor authorized the Southern Nevada Water Authority to take up to 40,000 acre-feet of water annually from the aquifer that lies underneath Spring Valley, west of Great Basin National Park.

--SNWA also wants to take groundwater out of Snake Valley, on the Utah-Nevada border. An acre-foot is considered enough water for a family of four for a year.

--The water would run through a 285-mile pipeline to southern Nevada. SNWA had requested 91,000 acre-feet annually. Taylor estimated that 80,000 acre-feet per year could be taken without affecting the water table, based on SNWA's plan to recharge the aquifer by pumping water uphill.

--The project would cost at least $2 billion and could begin delivering water by 2015.

--Utah and Nevada must negotiate a water-sharing agreement before SNWA can build the pipeline.

UTAH: The state Legislature in 2006 authorized construction of the Lake Powell Pipeline to meet the water demands of southwestern Utah.

--The Utah Division of Water Resources in March of this year decided to have the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission handle the project, which FERC describes as a hydroelectric project.

--The pipeline would move 70,000 acre-feet to Sand Hollow Reservoir near Hurricane, 20,000 acre-feet to Iron County and 10,000 acre-feet to Kane County annually. The project would include two new reservoirs and in-line hydroelectric generators to offset the cost of uphill pumping.

--Cost estimates range from about $600 million to $2 billion. The project's timeline is still fuzzy, but it could be completed by 2020.

--The state will carry out the project and the county water districts will repay the costs through water sales.


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