I-Team: Lack of water puts huge housing development in jeopardy

LAS VEGAS - Plans for a massive development twice the size of Summerlin are in big trouble. The problem -- in a word -- is water. 

The state engineer has determined there simply isn't enough water to authorize 150,000 homes to be built in Coyote Springs, 60 miles north of Las Vegas.

As the I-Team has reported for the past 15 years, water officials were well aware that the water supply would not support such a large development, but the information was kept hidden.

The Coyote Springs situation might also be a death knell for the proposed rural pipeline plan.

Don't let the lush greens of the Loen Golf Course fool you. Coyote Springs is one of the driest spots in the nation's driest state, an unlikely place to build 150,000 homes, 10 golf courses, and multiple casinos. But that was the audacious plan first pitched by powerful lobbyist Harvey Whittemore back in the late 1990s. Whittemore bought 40,000 acres of barren desert, in part because he had the backroom blessings of water czar Pat Mulroy.

"I didn't create the community. I didn't sell the land to the developer. It happened. Our problem is we have to deal with it," said Pat Mulroy, SNWA general manager in a previous interview.

Mulroy was being way too modest. Her water agencies propped up Whittemore's plan in multiple ways. She paid Whittemore $25 million for part of his water rights in Coyote Springs. That was $2 million more than he paid for the entire 40,000 acres.

(Harvey Whittemore)

In effect, Las Vegas water users financed the entire deal. But there was a catch -- a big one. The water Mulroy bought didn't exist, then or now.

"It is a region and a system, that is completely tapped out in terms of water availability," said Simeon Herskovits. "There is not a drop of groundwater available that is not already spoke for or accounted for."

Herskovitz isn't a neutral observer. He represents environmental groups opposed to an even larger scheme, the plan to spend $15 billion on a 300-mile long pipeline that would siphon billions of gallons of groundwater from under a huge swath of rural Nevada -- the so-called water grab.

Studies by federal agencies have predicted such a plan could cause the water table to drop by hundreds of feet, turning rural Nevada into a dead zone. Hydrologists have known since the 1960s that Coyote Springs has little water. It was confirmed again in the 1970s when Coyote Springs was a possible site for the MX Missile Project.

READ: State letter regarding water pumping tests

Several studies and pump tests since then have proven that even minimal pumping of groundwater in Coyote Springs causes the water table to drop dramatically. That evidence was inconvenient for proponents of the water grab, so the studies were buried. Dr. Martin Mifflin saw it happen.

"They have all been ignored, purposefully, purposefully because everybody wants more water," said Dr. Martin Mifflin.

When the housing market crashed a decade ago, plans for what some called Harveyville were tabled. But now, the new landowners want to fire it up again. They've spent millions on infrastructure. However, the state engineer has said no.

The state can't authorize the pumping of water that doesn't exist. The developers say they're ready to take it to court. But court is the one place where science and water law have prevailed over politics.

Opponents have won victory after victory by arguing that rural groundwater is all connected, so draining one basin would wreak havoc on the other basins. The state engineer sidestepped the issue of whether the death knell for Coyote Springs might also be the last nail in the coffin for the $15 billion water grab.

"The death knell was already sounded some time ago but this ruling, you're right, identifying it as the fulfillment or manifestation of what the state engineer's findings have required. he has no plausible way of allowing a development like Coyote Springs to go forward. there is no water to support it. that is the ultimate harbinger," Herskovitz said.

Mulroy is no longer in charge of the water agencies. New General Manager John Entsminger  can't comment on the Coyote Springs situation because a lawsuit is likely. He's said before the rural groundwater proposal can never be taken off the table entirely, but official enthusiasm for the plan has evaporated like a raindrop in Coyote Springs.

Local water agencies have already spent more than $100 million associated with the rural groundwater project but are now awaiting a ruling by the state engineer about whether it can ever proceed.

Two previous decisions were both overruled by courts. A third decision may come any day.

Coyote Springs development has informed the water agencies it plans to move forward and will likely be heading to court to protect its investment.

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