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The Vegas water grab

Published August 13, 2011 3:54 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The future of one of America's last great landscapes is at stake. The massive groundwater mining and export scheme proposed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority threatens to dry up the heart of the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah to fuel further unsustainable development in Las Vegas.

At risk is an area the size of Vermont that encompasses 35 hydrographic basins, five national wildlife refuges, four state wildlife preserves, seven state parks and two national parks, including Great Basin National Park.

For the past seven years, the fight over whether SNWA should get the rights it seeks to 57 billion gallons of water annually has been waged in Nevada administrative hearings and courts. Now we citizens get our chance. The Bureau of Land Management has held hearings and will continue to accept public comments on the draft environmental impact statement for the groundwater development project — aka the "Las Vegas Water Grab" — through Oct. 11. This is the best opportunity the public will have to speak out against this ill-advised, destructive project.



To its credit, the BLM has identified a wide array of irreversible, irretrievable and wholly unacceptable consequences of the pump-and-pipe plan. Impacts like groundwater tables dropping 50 to 200 feet, ground subsidence of more than 5 feet over hundreds of square miles, complete or partial drying up of 8,048 acres of wetlands, 305 springs and 112 miles of streams, with hundreds of existing water rights compromised.

Lack of water would imperil hundreds of thousands of acres of critical habitat for elk, deer, pronghorn antelope, sage grouse and wild horses.

The resulting die-off of natural vegetation would generate up to 24,000 tons of dust each year — dust that would blow downwind toward the Wasatch Front. Agriculture and livestock production would be decimated, and with it, the economy and communities of the region.

Despite this withering catalog of devastation, BLM's study is deeply flawed. The agency acknowledges that its study lacks important information about the hydrology of the region, the source of the waters in the area's caves, impacts on visual resources, soils data and more. The monitoring, management and mitigation measures proposed are inadequate to reduce, avoid or offset the extreme adverse effects of the project that BLM predicts. There simply is no excess water for export.

BLM fails to analyze the economic feasibility of the project, and fails to analyze adequately the direct and indirect costs and lost opportunity costs for rural communities affected by the project. The study even fails to consider whether climate change may exacerbate the potential negative impacts of the proposed action.

There are better alternatives to address the long-term water needs of metropolitan Las Vegas like ocean desalination, improved conservation and water pricing, improved surface water run-off capture, and water reclamation.

However, BLM wrongly narrows the scope of its analysis to whether to grant the right of way for the pipeline, choosing to study only modifications of the proposed action.

Thirty years ago, the Great Basin was under a huge threat from the proposed MX missile deployment. Public opposition defeated MX and can stop the water grab, too. Learn more about the water grab, visit the GBWN website www.greatbasinwater.net, comment on the draft impact statement, contact your Congress members and senators. Tell the BLM to protect the public trust resources under its management by selecting the No Action Alternative and denying the pipeline right of way.

SNWA General Manager Pat Mulroy once called this pipeline the "singularly most stupid idea anyone ever had" (High Country News, 1994). Let's help her and Las Vegas find a smarter, more sustainable water future.

Steve Erickson is the Utah coordinator of the Great Basin Water Network.

 

 

 

 

 

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