Thursday, August 18, 2011

Water War: Thirsty for Growth in Las Vegas? Or Parched to Death in Snake Valley?

(Also at Daily Kos)

Earlier this week, Henderson's Convention Center was host to the latest battle in the ongoing war for rural Nevada and Utah water. And while the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) got some high profile support at the BLM (federal Bureau of Land Management) hearing in Henderson this week (even if they were still outnumbered 4:1 by opponents), the angry tongue lashings against SNWA's water grab were much more unanimous at the BLM hearing in Ely last week. And in Elko, some high profile opposition hammered at the water grab proposal.

Elko County Commissioner Warren Russell said groundwater pumping will “create real desert areas,” and he called the proposed pipeline “a big sucking monster moving north.”

He also testified he is concerned about the attitude that the water authority could start the drawdown and “see what’s happening” in terms of impacts.

Yvonne Prescott, who grew up in Lincoln County, said the proposed pipeline would have a drastic impact on White Pine and Lincoln counties, and the water drawdown will create a dust bowl.

She also said the counties wouldn’t reap economic benefits because most construction workers would come from Clark County, and neither Lincoln or White Pine has housing for workers.

“I see all negatives for the people, animals and the land,” Prescott said.

Former Assemblyman John Carpenter of Elko testified he has had a lot of time to study the proposal over the years, “and the more you look at it, the less desirable it is.” He also questioned whether the water would at some point come from Elko County.

Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) even rose to speak of his concern about pumping 175,000 acre feet of groundwater out of rural communities with no chance of recharge. He also asked why SNWA isn't asking California for a pipeline to desalination plants, but the increasing controversy over ocean desalination probably makes that just as difficult for them. So we're back at Square One. To pipe or not to pipe? That is the $3.5 billion question.

And if that isn't bad enough for SNWA, Utahns are also balking at the proposed pipeline.

Among the 30 participants in the public hearing was Randy Parker, CEO, Utah Farm Bureau.

Rupert Steele, a member of the Goshute Tribe, told BLM officials that the draft EIS does not address the recharge rates of the aquifers if 177,000 acre-feet is pumped out of them per year as proposed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

"Taking water resources away from its source should not be allowed," Steele said. "This will leave a sad legacy of environmental destruction."

Pumping water out of aquifers that feed Utah’s west desert will lead to increased air pollution along the Wasatch Front, said Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon.

"Groundwater drawdown can generate dust and pollution," he said. "We already live in a non-attainment area in Salt Lake County. The federal government has already told us our air is not clean enough."

The BLM’s draft EIS estimates the pumping project would add 24,122 tons of windblown dust a year into the air during the project’s first 75 years.

The draft EIS also estimates that groundwater discharges to surface evaporation and transpiration by plants would be reduced by 28 percent in Snake Valley during the first 75 years of the project.

But [Steve Erickson, of the Great Basin Water Network] said he believes the draft EIS underestimates the impacts of the 306-mile pipeline project that Southern Nevada Water Authority says will cost some $3.5 billion.

Farmers and ranchers in Eastern Nevada and Western Utah depend on their local groundwater supplies to survive. So do hunters and wildlife. So do local Native American tribes. The stakes can't be any higher, and neither can the emotions on both sides.

Rural farmers and suburban Utahns direct their rage toward Pat Mulroy and her plans to steal their water, while Mulroy directs her rage right back at them for wasting so much water in the desert.

SNWA claims this is only about our survival. After all, Las Vegas is right in the heart of the Mojave Desert. Clark County will very soon have 2,000,000 people living here, and even as future growth is expected to slow, we'll still need water to survive. So how can we get the water?

SNWA - WATER ESCORT from Kurt Rauf on Vimeo.

SNWA has succeeded at dramatically transforming Clark County from a "water junkie" to a mecca of conservation. After levels sunk dramatically in the last decade, Lake Mead is actually rising again after a good rain/snow season and the release of excess Lake Powell water. And renegotiations over Colorado River water are bound to happen soon.

So why is there "need" for this pipeline to rural Eastern Nevada and Western Utah? That's what many are asking, and Pat Mulroy continues to insist that Lake Mead and conservation are not enough. She demands that we prepare for the possible instead of hoping for the probable.

Colorado River Drought Spurs Seven State Pact by FORAtv

So is she right? The BLM environmental impact study (EIS) now up for review casts doubt on Mulroy's much desired pipeline, and rural Nevadans and Utahns point to it as vindication for their hard stance against the water grab.

Meanwhile, opponents are quietly content over a draft environmental impact statement finally released by the bureau in June, after six years of input from the Water Authority, residents, tribes and a litany of federal agencies.

The prose is turgid and reserved, but the environmental conclusions are often stark:

• “... likely result in windblown dust emissions due to drying of hydric soils and loss or reduction of basin shrubland vegetation.” People in Utah, downwind, are particularly alarmed by this prospect.

• “... risk of subsidence of the ground surface as a result of the withdrawal of the groundwater.” This means the pumping could cause the ground to sink several feet over hundreds of square miles, causing buildings, transmission lines and roads to be structurally unstable.

• “... risk of invasion by invasive ... species.”

• The pumping could affect surface water, such as ponds, lakes and streams, which would obviously adversely affect the species that rely on that water for drinking, foraging, breeding.

• “Drawdown poses long-term risks to the agricultural sector in the rural areas...”

Great Basin Water Network, Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association, and others are fighting hard against SNWA's pipeline. And perhaps for the first time ever, they finally seem to be gaining the upper hand. But how long will it last? And will Pat Mulroy and SNWA go down without one last brutal battle?

And is this really the end of it? I doubt it. As climate change worsens and drought conditions reappear throughout America, expect The Water War to get uglier.

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