Las Vegas has won approval of the Nevada state engineer to siphon huge amounts of groundwater from beneath valleys to the north and pipe it to Sin City. This is bad news for Utah. It would almost certainly damage the fragile Great Basin ecosystem, its complex groundwater network and water rights in the Beehive State.
On paper, the pumping scheme looks reasonable. It would only proceed after hydrologic and biological studies. The full amounts of water the state engineer has granted could not all be taken at once. Rather, there would be initial withdrawals, followed by monitoring to see how the aquifers and biology were affected. If, after eight years, the effects were not seriously bad, more water could be pumped. There would be more monitoring.
The trouble with this approach is that, unlike surface water in a river, the effects of underground pumping often are not immediately seen. Plants could die off only slowly. Once the damage is apparent, however, it may be irreversible, and the political pressure to keep pumping water south, particularly after Las Vegas had invested billions in the pipeline project, would be enormous. The complaints of a few ranchers in Nevada and the people of Utah would not count for much.
These same problems argue against Utah signing an agreement with Nevada to allocate the scarce groundwater beneath Snake Valley, which straddles the state line. By the time experts figure out that an environmental catastrophe may be in the making, it could be too late to stop it.
There's not a lot of water in the Great Basin to begin with, and it's not like Las Vegas could give it back to be pumped into the ground again. Monetary damages could not undo the mischief, and there's nowhere else to go to get replacement water.
If predictions about climate change are correct, and the amount of snowpack that provides groundwater to the Great Basin is on the decline, then there's even worse trouble.
In his ruling in favor of the water district that serves Las Vegas, Nevada State Engineer Jason King dismissed the objections of people who worry about climate change because no evidence was submitted. However, the scientific consensus for climate change argues against going forward instead of plowing ahead.
We throw in with Utahns who worry about dust clouds enveloping Utah from denuded valleys to the west. We also believe the warnings of Snake Valley ranchers who say that well levels already are falling. Sucking more water from this environment is folly.
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