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Home / Articles / · Archive / News & Columns /  Reservoir Hogs
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Reservoir Hogs

As Utah and Nevada fight over water, some worry the West will turn into a new dustbowl.

By Ted McDonough
Posted // June 11,2007 -

To get to Snake Valley in Utah’s west desert, find a road less traveled and drive west. Then keep on driving. Past the last paved road, past swirling cyclones of dust, past the once vast Sevier Lake drained dry by farms of the earliest settlers and now usually marked by 200 square miles of white salt.

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Keep driving past the point where dust coats your teeth and eyes, past any sign of human habitation to the very west end of the state. There, smack on the border with Nevada and seemingly rising out of nowhere, you’ll find some of the highest peaks in Utah'the Deep Creek Mountains'and the Snake Valley stretched out below.

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The Deep Creeks are 12,000-foot-high collectors of water, and home to seven creeks that flow year round, giving the mountains their name. Isolated since the Pony Express stopped passing through in the 1860s, the Snake Valley is thought by some to be one of few places left to search for the liquid gold needed to satisfy the thirst of the West’s growing population. It’s also here that Las Vegas is digging for water.

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It’s on the Nevada side of the mountains that Las Vegas is planning hundreds of wells and a 285-mile-long pipeline that will move the Deep Creeks’ water to Las Vegas. A total of 200,000 acre-feet of water'that’s 65 billion gallons'would be shipped from rural Nevada to Las Vegas each year under the plan. Nine of the wells are planned just five miles from the Utah border in a valley straddling the Utah-Nevada line. Las Vegas’ water officials have targeted the Snake Valley to produce up to 50,000 acre-feet of water per year, pumping water into Nevada that would otherwise flow into Utah’s Great Basin. Not all of those 50,000 acre-feet would have flowed into Utah. Nevertheless, those who populate one of the sparsest corners of Utah warn that such a massive transfer of water will cause irreparable environmental damage.

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The vast valley floor appears deserted, but if you know where to look, you can find a handful of ranchers determined not to let Vegas have its way. They are few, but a tough bunch.

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George Douglass moved his family to the base of a Deep Creek canyon on the Utah side 30 years ago. At the time, he thought civilization was about collapse and wanted to live where he could concentrate on becoming self-sufficient.

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“It hasn’t collapsed yet, so I’m really disappointed,” Douglass says with a chuckle. “I’ll tell you what, my two daughters never let me live that down.” Douglass’ wife Ronnie thinks Vegas will be disappointed if it goes looking for water in this part of the desert. After seven years of drought, the family no longer grows crops. George must travel to make a living. Ironically, he’s currently working in Cedar City, drilling wells for that fast-growing town.

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Ronnie spends her days petitioning Utah’s congressman and state water officials.

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She said she fears removing any water from the valley will ruin the already tenuous existence of Snake Valley’s ranchers and the unique animals and plants that call the area home. The Douglass ranch is home to wild Mustang, pronghorn antelope and the Bonneville cutthroat trout, a species that was near extinction until the Douglasses created a fish hatchery on their ranch preserving the native fish.

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The small trickle of water that flows on their property feeds not alfalfa but a series of small fish breeding ponds that are primarily responsible for repopulating east slope Deep Creek streams with Utah’s state fish thought extinct just 40 years ago.

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Like George Douglass, many of the ranchers of Utah’s west desert would prefer to be left alone. But trouble keeps invading their solitude. In the late 1970s, they fought plans to put the MX Missile on their valley floor. Their new fight may be as difficult. It pits them against Las Vegas developers and against Harry Reid, Nevada’s powerful U.S. senator. Reid has close ties to Sin City developers but also strong pull with Utah’s politicians. They will need the Senate minority leader’s help if the Beehive State’s own plans for massive water projects are to become reality. It’s Sen. Reid who holds many of the cards, by way of his various committee memberships at the federal level, to water that would enrich Utah’s St. George area, and some worry Utah can’t afford to anger him by opposing the Las Vegas pipeline.

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The Las Vegas pipeline is just one of a series of massive Western water projects planned on a scale not seen since Lake Powell and Lake Mead were created to tame the Colorado River. Utah’s plans include a pipeline to bring Lake Powell water to St. George, the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan area. A second project on Utah’s books would take water from the Bear River to feed the growing thirst of the Wasatch Front, portions of which are projected by state water officials to run short of water at mid-century. Private speculators are even getting in on the act. One Colorado investor, Aaron Million, has proposed a pipeline from the Flaming Gorge reservoir to Denver.

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With the Colorado River no longer able to keep up with water demands of Western states, everyone is getting desperate. Some proposed solutions sound like science fiction. Las Vegas has funded studies to determine if the Pacific Ocean could be made drinkable by removing its salt. Then, the thinking goes, California wouldn’t need its share of Colorado River water, which could instead be sent to Nevada. But any such massive ocean desalinization programs are decades into the future. And as Western states gear up for huge water projects, scientists warn increasingly that they are digging for fool’s gold. The water, some say, simply isn’t there. And squeezing the last drops out of the turnip could cause unprecedented environmental disasters, from the dust bowl Douglass fears to the environmental devastation of one of the Western Hemisphere’s most important breeding grounds for migrating birds'the Great Salt Lake.

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Environmentalists warn the West is undergoing a massive conversion of public land to private homes too rapidly to foresee the consequences. This summer, 80 environmental organizations called for a moratorium on Western land privatization laws moving through Congress.

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Janine Blaeloch, with the Seattle-based Western Lands Project, heads the opposition, noting that both the Nevada and Utah pipeline proposals have been helped along by federal legislation she criticizes as giveaways of public land to private development.

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Utah Sen. Bob Bennett and Rep. Scott Matheson are sponsoring a law that would sell off 24,000 acres of land for private development around St. George while setting aside rights of way for water from the Lake Powell pipeline. Similarly, a Nevada land privatization bill sponsored by Sen. Reid gave free rights of way over federal land for the pipes to bring Snake Valley water to Las Vegas. Sen. Reid’s connections to the pipeline are personal. The project was redesigned in January so water could be shipped not just to Las Vegas, but also to a vast dry area one-hour northeast of the city known as Coyote Springs. There, casino lobbyist Harvey Whittemore'a heavy donor to Reid’s campaigns who also employs one of Reid’s sons as his personal lawyer'is planning a development described as one of the largest since the founding of Vegas itself: 159,000 homes and 16 golf courses on 43,000 acres of what’s now bone-dry ground.

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A second Reid son sits on the board of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Las Vegas water supplier proposing the pipeline project. Proponents of the federal land-trading bills deny it, but Blaeloch predicts much of the cash raised by selling off public lands will end up funding the massive water projects.

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“Growth is putting so much pressure on public lands, there really is a huge impetus to privatize more land to make way for retirement communities, second homes and the normal population,” she said. “And this incredible growth is in the West, where you have a huge amount of pressure on water supplies and not a whole lot of forethought on whether the water is going to be there to supply the development that is occurring.?

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Blaeloch lumps proposed development of St. George and Las Vegas into the same basket as “unsustainable.” Which means, quite simply, that if huge amounts of water must be shipped to develop land, maybe it shouldn’t be developed at all.

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“If you have to build 450 miles of pipeline to bring water to your community, there’s a problem there.?

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Snake Valley rancher Cecil Garland puts it another way. “We ain’t got water for Las Vegas,” he says.

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The 79-year-old Garland was one of the leaders in the campaign against the MX. Now he’s determined to fight the Las Vegas pipeline. He lives in what was once the post office of the tiny Utah town of Callao, settled as a stop in the Pony Express route. His wife is the town schoolteacher.

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Garland moved to Callao 30 years ago following a stint in Las Vegas where he claims to have dealt cards to Bugsy Siegel, the mobster often credited with the idea of a building a wide-open city in Nevada’s desert. Seventy percent of the Snake Valley is located in Utah, Garland notes, and Utah ranchers have historically used most of the area’s water.

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“If they build the pipeline, they’ll get the water,” said Garland. “They’ve got enough money to buy the ranches, the farms, everything else.?

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Where springs once bubbled from the surface of his ranch, today there are dry scars, the result, Garland says, of pumping by him and his neighbors during times of drought. Some climate scientists say the drought conditions Garland complains of might now be a permanent feature of the West.

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Marty Hoerling, meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., recently examined temperature data collected by the world’s climate scientists for a new assessment of climate change due out next year. His analysis focusing on Utah and Colorado, predicts a 5-degree rise in temperatures by 2050, perhaps as early as 2020. That means less snow pack, the area’s primary means of storing water, and more evaporation. For the Colorado River, Hoerling predicts the change will mean a decrease in annual river flow to 10 million acre-feet, barely enough to meet current demand of California, Arizona and Nevada. Years of drought have already robbed the Colorado River of much of its water. When the river was divided between Western states, it was thought to have a yearly flow of more than 16 million acre-feet. The flow in the last decade has measured about 13 million acre-feet. That level just matches current demand, Hoerling noted.

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“If flow is to decline because of climate change, it will move below current demand, let alone any growth in demand for water that some states have in mind,” he said.

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The Southern Nevada Water Authority claims there is a lot of unclaimed water deep beneath the valleys on either side of the Deep Creek Mountains. The authority says it won’t pump more than will be replaced each year by mountain runoff.

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“There have been lots of claims that [Las Vegas] just wants the water, and they are going to take it. That’s not at all how we are going about doing this,” said Scott Huntley, water authority spokesman. “Our plan is based on the idea of doing this in a sustainable manner.?

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Garland has his doubts. “This was once a huge Ice Age lake,” he said, noting scars left by the ancient Lake Bonneville on surrounding hills. “What makes them think it will recharge?”

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Scientists with the Utah Geological Survey are busily trying to determine recharge rates for area underground aquifers but say too little is known about area geology to say for sure how water flows in the Snake Valley. And the Las Vegas pipeline project is moving through the permitting process ahead of ongoing federal studies aimed at determining how much water is available.

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Stefan Kirby with Utah Geological Survey agrees with the Southern Nevada Water Authority that there is significant water under the Snake Valley but said the water might not replace itself if taken out. The water now being pumped from deep wells may have been put down in prehistoric times, he said. And it’s possible the area’s complex rock structure now carries mountain runoff sideways miles away before going to ground.

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Kirby is performing Carbon-14 dating'the same process used to date dinosaur bones'on samples of water taken from area wells to determine how much of the water rolling off of the Deep Creeks actually makes it into the deepest underground aquifers. What Utah scientists believe they do know is that Nevada’s wells will be placed precisely at the point where water from mountain creeks slips underground and makes its way into Utah. A 2005 Utah Geological Survey study found water currently flows from Nevada into Utah and predicted the Las Vegas pipeline would cause well levels in Utah to drop more than 100 feet, possibly drying up springs 30 miles into Utah. In a worst-case scenario, Nevada’s pumping could cause water flow in the entire Great Basin to reverse direction. Instead of flowing from Nevada into Utah, water would be sucked from Utah into Nevada. Garland worries that reversal could suck brackish water near the Salt Flats onto his land, destroying forever its ability to be cultivated.

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Utah ranchers plan to ask Utah’s Legislature in January for $1 million to fund test wells to monitor ground-water levels. They also want Utah to demand that Las Vegas switch off the pumps if those wells turn up signs that Utah’s water is being impacted.

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Responding to those calls, the Legislature’s Natural Resources Agriculture and Environment Committee this summer passed a resolution asking Utah water officials to hold off signing the Snake Valley water agreement with Nevada until studies of area groundwater have been completed. Committee members hope to have the full Legislature pass the resolution in January'if, that is, it isn’t too late.

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Utah and Nevada water officials are on track to complete the Snake Valley water agreement by the first of next year. Utah’s director of Natural Resources Mike Styler said he wants an agreement in place soon to protect Utah ranchers. He said the agreement he’s negotiating calls for monitoring and other safeguards ranchers want.

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All this hand-wringing may be in vain, Styler said. As part of negotiations, Utah and Nevada water officials estimated how much of the valley’s water is already being used. The answer, Styler said, appears to be all of it.

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“The amount of water available is so limited I think it will be marginal for southern Nevada to put a pipeline in [to Snake Valley],” he said. “One thing we’ve always said is any water right that belongs to Utah or could be used by Utah, we’re not going to give up.”

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Ranchers point out they aren’t the only ones using water in the west desert. On Dean Baker’s ranch at the south end of Snake Valley, Baker points to a hole in the ground where a spring used to be. Animals, probably coyote, have dug a hole to reach the water now several feet underground, he said.

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Today, without springs, the hundreds of antelope that range Baker’s property drink from his irrigation ditches to quench their thirst.

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Gandy Spring, a short drive from Baker’s ranch, is home to the “least chub,” a tiny prehistoric fish left behind in shallow pools when Lake Bonneville receded at the end of the Ice Age that is found almost nowhere else. Fish Spring National Wildlife Refuge and Great Basin National Park are also located in the area.

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Don Duff, the man who in the mid-1970s discovered surviving populations of Bonneville cutthroat trout in two high Deep Creek streams and worked with the Douglass family to restore the fish, worries Las Vegas’ pipeline could ruin his life’s work. Overpumping of ground water, he notes, has been known to cause mountain streams to dry up.

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“We can’t have expanded growth without impacts in the environment,” said Duff, a retired Forest Service aquatic ecologist who runs the Trout Unlimited chapter in Baker, Nev. “Once there are impacts shown, you’ve already lost. How do you shut the pumps down to a multibillion-dollar project? You can’t pump water back into the basin.?

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Utah environmentalists share similar fears about their state’s pending water projects. The Utah Rivers Council recently released a report asking Utah water officials to examine alternatives to developing water from the Bear River, noting the Bear provides 60 percent of the surface water to the Great Salt Lake. The lake and the river delta around it, including the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, are recognized as one of the most important refuges in the Western Hemisphere for migrating birds. Utah water officials say water would be taken only during high winter runoff, but the Rivers Council complains the lake is so shallow that small changes in water can have dramatic effects.

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The Las Vegas pipeline project also could impact lake levels. Water flowing out from the Snake Valley is thought to contribute around 10,000 acre-feet per year to the Great Salt Lake.

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Standing at the edge of his property where years of drought have killed even the tenacious plants that hold the desert together, Garland picks up a fistful of fine sand, then lets it fall through his fingers. Two years ago, before the worst of the recent drought abated, Garland said he witnessed clouds of dust 500 feet in the air. He predicted the result of Las Vegas pumping will be clouds thousands of feet high moving to Salt Lake City.

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Garland isn’t a man who shies from exaggeration. If the Las Vegas pipeline isn’t stopped, he predicts the land will become, “New Orleans in reverse.” But his vision of a new dust bowl isn’t that far fetched. It happened before, not too far away, in California’s Owens Valley, a one-time farming community at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

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At Garland’s invitation, attorney Greg James, the former water department director for Inyo County in Owens Valley, visited Callao this summer to speak to visiting lawmakers from Utah and Nevada. James told of Los Angeles raids on Owens Valley water beginning at the turn of the century and expanding through the 1970s. First the springs went dry. By the mid-1920s, the valley’s entire river had gone to Los Angeles. Then a lake dried up.

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By the time James got to Inyo County, Los Angeles had purchased all of the valley’s farms and ranches for water rights, and Owens Valley had become the world’s largest source of dust. The Clean Air Act eventually gave James some leverage to force Los Angeles to begin repairing the damage. Still, after decades of lawsuits, Owens Valley has managed to get back only about half the water.

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“The lesson from L.A. is they came to the valley saying, ?Don’t worry. It’s very safe. We are going to take a little bit of water,’” James said. “But as the city continued to grow, they couldn’t stop.”

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