LAS VEGAS -- A proposed pipeline that would siphon billions of gallons of groundwater from under rural Nevada and bring it to Las Vegas could have profound and devastating effects on the environment, according to a new study by the federal government.
Because of a political deal worked out a few years ago, federal agencies have stayed on the sidelines of the debate over the pipeline plan, but not anymore. The Bureau of Land Management has jumped in with both feet.
Few are going to plop down in the easy chair and read the 1,400 page monster report. It is a draft Environmental Impact Statement, and even though it does not include all aspects of the so-called water grab, the ones that are included are sobering enough.
The BLM has essentially confirmed many of the worst suspicions espoused by environmental groups -- that this pipleline would be a disaster on an epic scale.
"The water table will be 200 feet down. In excess of 200 feet," said Farrel Lytle. "Everything will die."
Farrel Lytle's family has lived in and around Eagle Valley since the 1860's, growing crops and raising cattle. His grandfather built the only remaining stone house. The old cemetery is dotted with the graves of his ancestors.
But the meadows, tree-lined mountainsides and fertile land that has supported so many generations could dry up and die if a rural groundwater grab moves forward.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority wants to build a 300 mile main pipeline, with perhaps 400 more miles of lateral lines, pepper the countryside with wells, and suck 176,000 acre feet per year from under Nevada's eastern valleys.
The consequences of that plan are outlined in a massive Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the BLM. Without question, the water tables will drop over a vast area, stretching 200 miles. The drop will be from 10 feet to 200 feet. The SNWA admits that it is counting on vegetation no longer being around to consume water.
"First, the land will sink as the water is pumped out -- the subsidence effect. Before that happens, those are shallow rooted plants, it will all die," said Lytle. "They plan to get half their water from limiting evapo-transporation, that's evaporation and the plants they grow on. They want to kill it they want to make a desert out of it."
BLM scientists spent four years and worked with 16 other entities, including SNWA, to come up with the gargantuan draft report. The project manager succinctly sums it up.
"The water dependent resources are very much at risk," said Penny Woods, BLM project manager.
Environmentalists are not as prone to understatement. "It's a slow moving cancer that is gonna spread across the landscape. There is going to be a hundred or so wells and each one of them is going to have their death zone expanding outward," said Rob Mrowka, Center for Biological Diversity.
Environmentalists like Mrowka have been issuing similar warnings for years. They are surprised but encouraged to now have the weight of a BLM study backing them up. Among the findings that jump out:
Subsidence, 525 square miles will drop five feet or more, 8,000 acres of wetlands will be lost, 191,000 acres of shrub land wildlife habitat will be at high risk, along with more than 300 fragile springs and 193 miles of streams, 24,000 tons of dust per year will be kicked up in newly created deserts, critical habitats for antelope, deer, elk, sage grouse, trout and dozens of other species -- many of them already endangered -- will be severely affected.
"SNWA's vision is maybe we can go out there and plant some species that don't require as much water, but the fact is, they are turning it into a desert," said Mrowka.
"Nevada water law allows there to be some reasonable lowering of the water table so what we are asking to do is consistent with Nevada water law and we believe is sustainable," said Zane Marshall, SNWA pipeline project manager.
Marshall is not only the SNWA's pipeline project manager but is a biologist with a personal interest in springs and pupfish and such. Part of his job is to assure the public that the removal of an ocean of groundwater from rural valleys will have minimal impact because SNWA will not only replant those areas but also manage the wells, turning them off and others on if problems arise.
"Those impacts described in that document don't include the mitigation and the management and the adaptive management programs that are also later described in that document, so they present those numbers in comparison to the alternatives but that is not, in fact, what is going to happen," said Marshall.
But as Marshall admits, the fact is, never in the history of the world has there been such a water management program on such a scale. The people in its path do not believe that once it is built, it will ever be turned off.
Reporter George Knapp: "So, no question, it will be a disaster on a huge scale?"
Farrel Lytle: "Exactly."
George Knapp: "You can't come to a different conclusion?"
Farrel Lytle: "No."
George Knapp: "So, anyone who goes along with this has decided, we're willing to do that."
Farrel Lytle: "Exactly."
This fall, Nevada's state engineer will hold hearings about the water grab. Hundreds of opponents will speak their peace, but the BLM will not be among them. Because of the stipulated agreement imposed a few years ago, federal agencies had to back off and let SNWA monitor its own program so, BLM can't introduce this study into the hearings.
However, BLM will hold public meetings for comment on the draft report.
Investigative reporter George Knapp and Photojournalist Matt Adams won a Peabody Award for their special on this issue in 2009. It was titled Crossfire: Water, Power and Politics.
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