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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applications for water rights filed by the predecessor of the current-day Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) are no longer valid because too much time has passed since the original protest period.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.”

Even though the recent state Supreme Court ruling makes Snake Valley residents feel a little better about the situation, they know this fight may never really end. "The threat is still there. Absolutely,” says Gary Perea, who owns businesses in Baker and is a White Pine County commissioner. "Las Vegas is still moving forward with it. They refiled on all the old 1989 applications. They just got further behind in the line, is all that happened.”

The water conflict has made Dean Baker something of a celebrity as he became a spokesman for Snake Valley's point of view. He says he abhors publicity and is not inclined to be front-and-center on issues but that he had to change in order to preserve the community's way of life. The situation has gotten the attention of some U.S. media outlets, but Baker has been more prominent on numerous European television shows.

"Europeans have been more interested than U.S. media and more knowledgeable. We've had five French TV crews here and crews from Germany and other places. Europe has vastly different views on all this than America,” Baker says. "They put a totally different value on agriculture, dating back to World War II scarcity, and have gone to extremes protecting it. A German TV crew asked if they should help organize a boycott of Las Vegas in their country. A French TV reporter interviewed me with tears running down her face.”

Riding a ranch scattered over 70 miles, Baker points out the fallacy of pulling water from under the valley. Snowmelt from the Snake Range of mountains feeds numerous springs, which in turn provide water for cattle, crops and wildlife. Irrigation already in the valley has dried up some springs and wells. Piping groundwater out through a huge pipeline could dry up all the springs, he thinks.

"We've seen a very direct impact from irrigation. We've pulled the water level down, but not highly. We're still able to make the land productive. If they pipe the water out, it will take out all the plants that depend on water and all the animals that depend on the plants,” Baker says.

Laurie Carson, a White Pine County commissioner who moved to the area from Las Vegas in 2002 with her husband, Doug, to start a small ranch 30 miles southwest of Ely, agrees that the pipeline would deplete Snake Valley's water. "The science we've looked at shows that the recharge just isn't there. If you talk to farmers, they say that when the springs are low, when the water is gone and it doesn't rain, all they can do is sit back and watch the crops turn brown,” Carson says.

Snake Valley residents have gotten support from at least one unusual place. The Great Basin National Park, located on the Snake Range and headquartered in Baker, has been the ranchers' ally in the water dispute.

"We don't know the effect a water drawdown in the Snake Valley will have on flora and fauna. We have caves in the park and species in them are water-dependent. We've spent $2 million on research to help define the impacts of the pipeline and irrigation. This is Nevada's only national park, and so far our national representatives have not come out on the side of the park on this issue,” says Andrew Ferguson, park superintendent.

The economic recession slowed Las Vegas' growth, taking some of the pressure off the push to complete the water pipeline plans.

"Recession and drought raised havoc with their plan,” Baker explains. "They're still getting the paperwork and permitting done.”

"They knew they were pushing growth beyond what the resources could bear, but they argue that you can't let 2 million people not have water to drink. They said that every 10 years, they want to double the population. If you think only of money, you speculate on water regardless of the environmental impact.”

The recent Nevada Supreme Court ruling is a small victory for agriculture, but the future still looks uncertain to many people in the Snake Valley. "The court ruling is not as clear as one would hope,” Baker says.


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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Late Spring 2010

 
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