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Moench: Water pact an ecological disaster
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

My favorite Elvis Presley song begins, "Wise men say, only fools rush in, but I can't help falling in love with you." This song ran through my mind as I read that Gov. Gary Herbert will announce whether he will sign the infamous Snake Valley Water Grab on April 1 — April Fools Day.

Herbert's closest adviser on the issue, Mike Styler, "can't help falling in love" with the water grab, claiming, against all evidence, that signing the agreement gives Utah the best legal protection.

Unless there is open citizen rebellion, it is almost certain that, wise men be damned, Herbert will take the fools leap and sign the agreement. What Styler is selling — giving away, actually — is not just the Snake Valley but snake oil in the form of a lot more pollution for Utah.

If you like our winter inversions you'll love the water grab.

More frequent dust storms worldwide are directly tied to the climate crisis. Hotter, drier conditions have increased doomsday dust storms, called "haboobs," in the American Southwest. You can watch one at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8W4Cx44XKZ4. In 2011 Phoenix had 24 major dust storms. Climate experts warn this is just the beginning.

The worst pollution ever recorded in Salt Lake has not been from our inversions, but during dust storms from the West Desert. If the governor signs the SVWG, native vegetation dependent on Great Basin aquifers will disappear, creating a junior Sahara Desert. Vegetation loss will make the Basin even hotter, creating a positive feedback leading to even greater stress on remaining vegetation, accelerating die off, amplifying the ensuing dust.

It's not like this is wild-eyed speculation. Other water diversion schemes like that in California's Owens Valley and the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan have each created their own dust disasters. After having its water diverted to Los Angeles, the desiccated Owens Valley set the record for the highest particulate pollution ever recorded in the U.S. The area dried out by the Vegas water grab would be almost 900 times larger than Owens Valley.

Dust storms, the direct result of water diversion from the Aral Sea, carry 200,000 tons of salt and toxic dust airborne every day. Life expectancy in the region has declined from 64 to 51 years. Adverse pregnancy outcomes are much higher than in the rest of Russia.

In that area, 87 percent of newborn babies are anemic and 5 percent have birth defects. Health authorities believe the newly formed dust bowl and the toxic chemicals contained in the dust are the primary cause of these disturbing public health trends.

Western dust already hastens snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains, reducing runoff into the upper Colorado River by 5 percent, causing the loss of 250 billion gallons of water a year, more than would be carried in the Las Vegas pipeline. Nevada's appropriation isn't just water theft; it's a net water loser for the entire West.

Styler's gullibility is breathtaking, but for Utahns "breathtaking" will be literal, not figurative.

Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, bought the Las Vegas sales pitch that "monitoring" will magically prevent disaster. By the time monitoring detects vegetation die-off, the consequences will already have become irreversible. Once an aquifer is gone, piped to Las Vegas fountains, the vegetation that thrived on it will also be gone, never to come back. This isn't rocket science.

If Las Vegas spends $15.5 billion on this giant vampire straw that everyone but them recognizes will suck the life blood out of the Great Basin, it is a cruel joke to suggest that they will just walk away from their investment, especially if they have another 250,000 people and businesses now totally dependent on that water. They will tie up every court in the country to keep what they stole, regardless of the damage they've caused. The Owens Valley debacle has been tied up in court for decades, and the water keeps flowing to Los Angeles.

If the governor signs on, Utah should adopt a new term for "haboob" — "Herboob", or perhaps "Airpocalypse." Funny as that may sound, this is a deadly serious public health crime in the making, something you might expect from a place called "Sin City." What you wouldn't expect is that Utah's leaders would betray their own citizens and do nothing but watch the crime unfold.

Brian Moench, M.D., is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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