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Water Roulette

May 4, 2010
By: Charles Johnson, Farm Journal Editor

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Snowmelt from Nevada's Snake Range of mountains feeds numerous springs, which provide water for cattle, crops and wildlife.

In Snake Valley, you're about as far from big-city life as it's possible to get in the lower 48. The more-than-100-mile-long valley straddles the Nevada-Utah state line 250 miles north of Las Vegas. Yet, for more than 20 years now, farmers and ranchers in this arid region have been in a rural versus urban tug-of-war.

The prize? Abundant groundwater under a valley where it rains 5" a year. Las Vegas wants it. The farmers and ranchers don't want to give it up. After all this time, no one knows how things will turn out—but at the moment, the rural forces seem to have the upper hand.

Snake Valley is one of many regions struggling with

water-related issues. This story continues our coverage of how water is leaving its mark for producers across the U.S.

In late January, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that applications for water rights filed by the predecessor of the current-day Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) are no longer valid because too much time has passed since the original protest period. Protests to the plan were supposed to be heard within a year of filing the applications. But they have dragged on to the present day, and even though land changed hands, SNWA allowed only original landowners to testify. The court ruled that was wrong.

The ruling does not end the Las Vegas water grab threat, however. The water authority filed for new applications. Nevada's state legislature almost took action to write a "legislative fix” to undo the Supreme Court ruling. After a contentious debate in an emergency budget special session, though, lawmakers rejected the bill on March 1.

It's a classic fight over water. Until the recent economic recession slammed the brakes on construction, Las Vegas was one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. Growth depends on water—and developers want to secure it any way they can.

In 1989, Las Vegas targeted water in lightly populated, faraway valleys, planning to deliver 200,000 acre-feet annually through 300 miles of 84" pipeline. When the authority bought ranches in Spring Valley in order to secure the water, residents of neighboring Snake Valley (so remote that electricity lines didn't reach there until 1970) knew they were next in line.

People there envisioned the region becoming another Owens Valley, a notorious California case in which Los Angeles built an aqueduct, diverting a river for it and then filling it with groundwater, drying up a once productive farm area in the process. "In Snake Valley where we live, no one has yet sold to SNWA. Our family at the start made the decision not to sell and refused to talk dollars with people,” says Dean Baker, whose family has ranched around Baker, Nev., since 1954.

"The residents here are fighting to keep the pipeline out of Snake Valley,” Baker says. "It's a tough and expensive fight. Las Vegas controls the political power of Nevada. SNWA has gotten $300 million from sales of Bureau of Land Management federal lands, sales created by Sen. Harry Reid. The goal is to grow Las Vegas and its gaming industry by using the water resources of rural Nevada.”

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Late Spring 2010

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