I-Team: Court Ruling Emboldens Water Grab Opponents

LAS VEGAS -- Opponents of a plan to siphon billions of gallons of rural groundwater and pipe it to Las Vegas told the state water engineer Monday there simply isn't as much water as the Southern Nevada Water Authority claims.

Draining the water could turns parts of Nevada and Utah into a dead zone, they said.

For years, ranchers and environmentalists have said the water grab could decimate the environment, but it appeared there was little they could do to stop the project. That is no longer the case. 
 
Opponents recently gathered in Ely to plan their strategy and talk about a new weapon at their disposal -- a court ruling.
 
Rancher Dean Baker could have been a very wealthy man had he decided to sell out rather than fight the proposed water grab. His property could have easily fetched more than $50 million based on what Las Vegas water officials paid for other ranches.

Baker knows as well as anyone what groundwater pumping on a massive scale will do to the land, because he's already seen it. If Las Vegas comes to depend on rural groundwater for the next growth spurt, he says it is southern Nevada that will be hurt the most.

"If they build a seven-foot pipeline, they'd end up out of water and would spend billions of dollars and have people who needed water and can't get it. It will hurt Las Vegas as bad as anyone," he said.

Baker's fight against the water grab isn't as lonely as it used to be. To counter the muscle of the mighty Southern Nevada Water Authority, a Central Nevada Water Authority has formed, made up not only of rural Nevada counties, but also governments in California and Utah who think their water could be targeted next.

A strategy session held in Ely brought these otherwise strange bedfellows together -- cowboys and Native Americans, ranchers and environmentalists, all on the same page.

SNWA has said it has no plans, for example, to go after Elko County's groundwater, but Elko attended because they don't believe it for a minute.

"We do not believe it. That is why we put up a fight," said Elko County Commissioner Warren Russell.

Elko has water, but it also has economic clout of its own thanks to the booming mining industry, and it is throwing its political heft behind the smaller counties already in the cross hairs of SNWA. The assumption that the pipeline plan was inevitable has given way to a hope the rural's haven't had before.

"It's getting to the point that people are getting some hope that it can be stopped," said Bill Butts with the White Pine County Water Board.

It's been a tough year for SNWA. A preliminary report by the Bureau of Land Management predicted a possible environmental catastrophe if the water grab moves forward. Then an independent analysis pegged the likely cost of the plan at more than $15 billion.

Neither of these fazed SNWA, but has emboldened opponents who are hoping the state water engineer will deny water rights claims filed by SNWA, or at least minimize the claims because of potential environmental consequences.

Most encouraging of all is a decision by the Nevada Supreme Court, quietly handed down in July, which declared that individual counties could overrule the state engineer when it comes to water transfers that might affect the environment.

Some opponents worry SNWA will try to circumvent the decision by going to the legislature. The leader of the assembly Republicans, who was present for the Ely conference, thinks lawmakers would be reluctant to gut the rural counties.

"I think people in the legislature today are willing to look at the total ramifications. I think most believe in home rule. They believe counties have a right to make those decisions," said Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicochea.

Opponents not only think they can stop the project, but that they have a better alternative -- investment in desalting plants. Southern California water officials told the Ely meeting that four desalting plants, costing less than half of what the pipeline would cost, could match the water and would be a permanent solution. The technology exists now.

"There are 15,000 ocean desalting plants around the world. There are probably three or four in California. To me, that's crazy," said Mike Dunbar with the South Coast Water District.

Dunbar says water districts in California are now getting serious about building desalting plants, but SNWA has shown little interest, putting all of its eggs instead in the water grab basket. It is a strategy that could prove costly in the long run, not only for Nevada's environment but also for the economic future of Las Vegas.


More Stories

Don't Miss

  • Community Calendar
    Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
  • Connect with 8 News NOW
    Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
  • Deadly Dust: Asbestos
    Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
  • Community Pride
    Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
  • Politics Now
    Copyright 2017 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Latest News