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Water madness

Published September 27, 2012 8:35 pm

Drought warns against Vegas pipe
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Far western Utah is suffering its driest year ever. The current drought is another warning that a scheme by Las Vegas-area water managers to pump vast quantities of ground water from wells in eastern Nevada to Sin City is an environmental disaster in the making.

By summer's end, one spot in Snake Valley, which straddles the Utah-Nevada state line, usually receives about 7 inches of precipitation in a normal year. This year it got 2 inches. The drought in the area is the worst on records that date to 1895.

A single year does not a climate make, of course. Last year, much of Utah received record-setting rain and snow in the other direction: abundance. Still, the people in Nevada, the nation's driest state, and Utah, its second-driest, ignore the current drought at their peril.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority is pursuing a scheme to slake the thirst of Las Vegas by piping vast quantities of ground water from the valleys of eastern Nevada through a 263-mile pipeline. Sinking such a huge straw into the aquifers that underlie the Great Basin, which studies suggest are interconnected, could withdraw enough water to cause a dust bowl, killing off plant and animal life in these valleys.

The SNWA and the Nevada state engineer, who referees water rights, say that will not happen for two reasons. First, they say there is enough underground water to allow withdrawals of the magnitude proposed without permanently damaging the ability of the environment to recharge supplies. Second, the engineer has imposed a system of monitoring wells that will alert officials to declining water tables in time to avert a disaster.

But experts rightly caution that by the time the wells sound the alarm, it could be too late to reverse the damage. Besides, once Las Vegas has invested in a $3 billion pipeline and pumping system, it will not give up the water willingly. In the West, water inevitably flows toward population and money.

The SNWA has applied for permission to pump 176,655 acre-feet of water a year. (An acre-foot is roughly enough to supply a single-family home and yard for a year.) The state engineer has approved water rights of roughly half that amount in Spring, Delamar, Dry Lake and Cave valleys. So far, Snake Valley is not part of the plan, but it still would be affected by withdrawals from adjoining Spring Valley.

But in a year like this one, where water tables in wells already have plunged to points that require deeper drilling, the Vegas pipeline project looks like environmental madness.