Peg McEntee: Why we can't let Utah's Snake Valley dry up
Ever been to Snake Valley? It's about a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City, two on the freeway to Wendover and another two on old asphalt and dirt roads that rise and fall with the terrain under a big sky.
It's home to farmers, ranchers, Goshutes and their families who depend on groundwater, some sources so ancient they date back to the ice age, and drainage from the Deep Creek Range that feeds the aquifers below.
And, if Nevada has its way, water from Snake Valley and its Nevada counterparts will find its way to Las Vegas through a 385-mile, potentially $15 billion pipeline that would feed thirsty Las Vegas.
Yes, Vegas, with its monster hotels, fountains, casinos, high-rises and a periphery of housing that, in these financially troubled times, is wilting in the desert heat.
Still, you might ask, doesn't Vegas, with hundreds of thousands of residents, need that water more than a handful of farmers and ranchers?
No. Those tough, hardworking ranch families are entitled to be equal partners in the distribution of water that belongs not to a single entity, but to all of us.
Let's also consider peripheral damage that a parched and denuded West Desert could send Salt Lake City's way hot, fast winds laden with dust and dried vegetation that would shroud the Wasatch Front.
Not that dust storms aren't already happening. A few summers ago, dust from the west rolled into the Salt Lake Valley, a heavy rain fell and coated my car so completely that I had to pull over because my windshield wipers couldn't clear the mud.
I know that Gov. Gary Herbert has been making the rounds in western Utah, talking to people about a proposed agreement in which the Beehive and Silver states would split the Great Basin's groundwater. Mike Styler, executive director of Utah's Department of Natural Resources, has warned that if Herbert doesn't sign the deal, the state could lose substantive protections.
Those would include curtailed pumping if the groundwater is being withdrawn faster than it is recharged. And if lost groundwater harms the land, fish and wildlife, Las Vegas could risk losing the water rights if Utah can prove its case and Nevada does not mitigate the damage.
It's a tough call, and one Herbert has said he'll make in a week or two.
A few years ago, I visited Cecil Garland at his Callao ranch, where he breeds what he calls Red Angus cattle. A longtime anti-pipeline activist, Garland compared the balance of new and old water to a sweater: If you pull one piece of yarn apart, the whole thing unravels.
Late in the afternoon, we stood in a sweet breeze, listening to bird song and studying the Deep Creeks.
It would be disastrous to lose that water, land and beauty to a voracious Vegas that should turn down its own taps as should a number of cities right here in Utah.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at email@example.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @Peg McEntee.
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