Vegas Goes to War Over Water

Sin City's thirst for excess threatens precious natural resources.
Water, water everywhere, but not enough to drink. (Photo: Getty Images)
Apr 26, 2012
writes about environment and energy for the NYT, Popular Science, OnEarth Magazine, and more.

Fasten your seatbelts, folks.

One of the Southwest's most painfully protracted water wars is heating up again.

This week, more than 350 different businesses, environmental groups, churches, Indian tribes, local governments, and ranchers from across Nevada and Utah banded together in a rare act of solidarity to file a petition to appeal the Nevada State Engineer's decision last month to grant the Southern Nevada Water Authority permission to pump 27 billion gallons of water annually from four rural valleys to Clark County and the greater Las Vegas area.

"I didn't have to ask anyone twice," said Susan Lynn of Great Basin Water Network. "All these groups and people just said yes, sign us up—we are right behind you all the way. I think that sends a pretty clear message."

The State Engineer's decision was announced ironically enough on World Water Day and comes after the last similar grant to unappropriated water rights in the area was struck down nearly two years ago in two separate cases by the State Supreme Court.

The pipeline project, which was first conceived of more than 25 years ago, has an ambiguous price tag of somewhere between $2-15 billion dollars.

A spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity called the State Engineer's decision "utterly unsustainable" and "a disaster for rural communities and their economies, native plants and animals and all people who care about them."

The appellants also claim that the pipeline project has a "woefully inadequate monitoring and mitigation plan."

Simeon Herskovits, Director and Chief Counsel with Advocates for Community and Environment, expects that this appeal process will keep the decision in district courts for the better part of two years—and perhaps up to three years in the Nevada State Supreme Court after that. Herskovits says the case will eventually land in the state's highest court because regardless of the decision, one or other side will challenge it.

Currently, however, there is legally nothing stopping the SNWA from forging ahead with pipeline construction, although Herskovits believes that the land will be protected over the next few years simply because the project still needs to raise capital, and it is unlikely that any sane investor would give millions to something which may never be legal. 

In the meantime, at the federal level, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management still needs to complete its Environmental Impact Statement, which, after seven long years, is expected this July. At that point, there will be about a one-month public comment period during which anyone with a strong opinion can have their voice heard. 

Herskovits believes, however, that despite all the legal stalling, in the end, the only thing that will permanently stop the pipeline project is if the folks of Clark County can be convinced that it's not the right decision for them either.

"It's difficult because the Las Vegas area is a very transient community," explained Hershovits. "A lot of people are passively accepting of the project because they figure they won't be around long enough to have to cope with the consequences. But they should know that there are more cost-effective and less damaging alternatives, alternatives that won't triple water rates in the area and permanently destroy the Great Basin."

What all sides can agree on is that while Las Vegas has enough water for the immediate future, a city of that size, which depends on the dwindling Colorado River and shrinking Lake Mead for nearly 90 percent of its water, is in desperate need of a plan.

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