I-Team Exclusive: Study to Determine Las Vegas Water Supply

The results of a multi-million dollar federal study of Nevada's groundwater will be released in a few weeks, and the stakes for our state couldn't be higher. 

The study is examining groundwater resources in rural Nevada and Utah, information that could help determine how much water Las Vegas can siphon from those areas. The Eyewitness News I-Team has an exclusive interview with one of the chief scientists involved in the study.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority hopes to suck billions of gallons of water every year from under fragile valleys in rural Nevada and Utah, funneling that water to a thirsty and growing Las Vegas. The proposed system of pumps and pipelines will cost billions of dollars, so, is there enough water available to justify the effort?

Alan Welch with the U.S. Geological Survey said, "We report facts. We don't make judgement calls or try to set any policy whatsoever."

You won't get hydrologist Alan Welch to answer a loaded question like that one. Nor will he even speculate what the effects of groundwater pumping might be on the delicate ecology of White Pine County or western Utah.

Welch's employer, the U.S. Geological Survey, was tasked by Congress with a comprehensive study of the hydrology of the Great Basin, perhaps the most intense study ever of water resources in the region. USGS and Nevada's Desert Research Institute were given $6 million to collect raw data about how much water is under the desert and whether water in one underground basin is connected to water in others.

The collection phase is over, Welch says. Results will be made public June 1, and no one will get to see the information until then, not even the state engineer who will decide how much water Las Vegas can grab from the rurals. The study, known by the acronym BARCASS, will not make recommendations one way or another. Instead, it will lay the groundwork.

"The next step would be make a practice groundwater flow model," said Welch. "A computer model would describe the flow within the entire area, and then try to put on that some proposed pumping and see what the reaction would be. If someone said, we're going to extract water from some part of the study area, what would the impact be? We don't discuss impacts."

But you can bet other parties will put the raw data to use. Already, some opponents of the water grab have alleged the BARCASS study is rigged to favor the pipeline plan. They worry that like any other statistics, those generated by the Great Basin study can be manipulated.   Welch says the USGS hasn't noticed any political pressure, although there certainly have been a few curious phone calls as the end of the study draws near.

"There seems to be... well, there is a lot of interest for a variety of different reasons," said Welch.

Nevada's state engineer reportedly will not use information from the federal water study in making his decision about the so-called rural water "grab." That decision could come at any time. 

In a related story, the Progressive Leadership Alliance plans to unveil its own survey, exploring how local people feel about our area's explosive growth, an issue directly related to the pipeline plan.

Email your comments to Investigative Reporter George Knapp.


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