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Fight Brewing in Nevada over Water Rights


This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Chadwick.

The desert city of Las Vegas is one of the country's fastest growing metropolitan areas, the fastest by many counts. Of course, all the growth means more people and a need for more water, and a lot of it. So the Southern Nevada Water Authority has a two billion dollar plan to get it: an enormous pipeline that would bring rural groundwater from far away underground wells to the desert city.

As Scott Carrier reports, not everyone is happy with this.

SCOTT CARRIER reporting:

The plan is to build a pipeline from Las Vegas, more than 200 miles north, where it will branch out like a tree to seven separate high desert basins, covering an area roughly the size of the State of West Virginia. There's very little surface water in these basins. They have sort of an Outer Mongolian look to them. But each basin holds water underground, aquifers like enormous bathtubs separated by mountain ranges.

It's one of the least populated places in the country. Most of the people who do live here are cattle ranchers who've been pumping the groundwater for 100 years to grow alfalfa. And a lot of these ranchers are pretty upset about the proposal.

Mr. CECIL GARLAND (Rancher, Snake Valley, Nevada): What Las Vegas is doing is they're building a New Orleans in reverse, because they can't go on doing what they're doing. Anybody with brains enough to get in out of the shower of croquet balls can figure out that you can't go on in the kind of environment, desert environment, that they live in doing what they're doing.

CARRIER: Cecil Garland is 80 years old and has a ranch in Snake Valley.

Mr. GARLAND: If Las Vegas didn't exist at all, period, the consequences overall to this country would be insignificant. But I would tell you this pretty damn quick. The consequences of breaking your farmers and ruining them and taking their water is a long-term consequence that cannot be rectified or justified.

Professor HAROLD ROTHMAN (History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas): You know, I admire rural people for the way that they live. But an argument about the efficiency and necessity of Nevada agriculture falls flat.

CARRIER: Harold Rothman is a professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He thinks the water should go where it generates the most money and helps the most people.

Mr. ROTHMAN: What ranchers really are is an oligarchic anachronism. They're a cabal of people who have water only because it was given to them 100 years ago, and they have no rationale, no economic rationale, no social rationale beyond that for keeping it at this stage of the game.

Las Vegas is the most efficient, dollar for dollar the most efficient use of water in the state. The casino hotels generate, the average casino hotel with 3,000 rooms generates as much as a billion dollars a year in revenue for the state in all kinds of ways. For the same amount of water that a 3,000-room casino uses in a year, a rancher outside of Baker, Nevada irrigates 25,000 acres of alfalfa that really in the United States nobody needs.

CARRIER: That rancher outside Baker, Nevada Professor Rothman was talking about, his name is Dean Baker.

Mr. DEAN BAKER (Rancher): We're putting up a hay shed. The crew's working on it this morning.

CARRIER: We drive around his pastures and see a white hawk sitting on one of his irrigation pivots, a heard of 40 antelope grazing on his alfalfa.

Mr. BAKER: You ever seen a herd of antelope that big?

CARRIER: It's a beautiful place, and it's true. He pumps a lot of groundwater to grow this alfalfa. Some pastures he irrigates with five feet of water a year and gets three cuttings. This water comes from wells going down 300 feet. But he's also developed over 30 natural springs that have water running out of the ground and into troughs for his cattle. He says other animals use these springs: antelope, big horn sheep, lots of birds, chipmunks, rabbits.

The springs are good for the environment. And that he knows from experience if he over pumps deep ground water, the springs on the surface dry up. That's what worries him about sharing the ground water with Las Vegas. He just doesn't think there's that much water to go around. And to prove his point, he takes me to a spring that went dry due to over-pumping.

Mr. BAKER: This was a pond. I've seen this pond, spent years and years. This pond was full of water and ducks landed here. The vegetation has completely changed and it's just dried up. But this is as vivid as an example as you can imagine of what pumping does to the water table.

CARRIER: But you're assuming that people care about this area. I mean that people think this is already a desert. Do you know what I mean?

Mr. BAKER: Well, you think those 40 antelope we just saw care if it's dried up and there isn't a home for them? Do you think that hawk we looked at will care if there isn't a home for him? I care about it that much.

CARRIER: The thing is, nobody really knows just how much water is under the ground or how long it takes to get there, not in this basin or any of the others that Las Vegas is planning to pump. The last estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey were done in the 60s. And everyone agrees this is exactly what they were, estimates. The U.S. Geological Survey is currently re- estimating the region's aquifers, but the results won't be made public for another six months or so.

If you ask the Southern Nevada Water Authority, they will say pumping will not harm the environment. Patricia Mulroy is the general manager of the SNWA.

Ms. PATRICIA MULROY (General Manager, Southern Nevada Water Authority): I think it's the same issue that has played itself out between rural communities and cities in the West for the last several decades. And so we've offered to our neighbors, if there's a regionalized drought in the area and groundwater is starting to look stressed, or we're seeing environmental impacts that we didn't anticipate, they would help dictate the pumping strategy for that year. They could help make sure that the ranching community is not hurt, that the ranchers are not decimated, that the environment is not decimated. We're not saying trust me. We're saying take a seat at the table and control us.

Mr. GARLAND: I learned one thing in the gambling house years ago. If somebody says I'm going to care of you, watch him.

CARRIER: Cecil Garland.

Mr. GARLAND: If anybody thinks that they're going to spend five billion dollars for a water system up in this country, and then let that system set there dry, I've got that famous bridge in Brooklyn that you might want to buy also.

CARRIER: Actually, the proposed budget at this point is two billion dollars, but this doesn't seem to matter to Garland.

Mr. GARLAND: Here's the plan. The plan is, well, let's mediate. Mediation is going to lead to litigation. And what the hell chance do you think we've got against Las Vegas, Southern Nevada litigating in a court? First of all, we haven't even got enough money to get into the court. And it's pure, unmitigated arrogance.

CARRIER: For now, the Bureau of Land Management is conducting a study of the possible environmental impacts. It's going to take years to decide one way or the other. At the soonest, Las Vegas expects the pipeline to be finished in the year 2015.

For DAY TO DAY, this is Scott Carrier.

CHADWICK: And thanks to our friends at the radio consortium for bringing us Scott's story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Carrier