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Downwind again: Utah must guard against Nevada Dust Bowl

Published August 1, 2007 7:39 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah legislators are rightfully alarmed about a nightmare scenario that goes something like this:

Las Vegas pumps the ground water from beneath the valleys of east-central Nevada and western Utah, creating a new Dust Bowl. Winds whipping across this wasteland send clouds of dust whirling toward the Wasatch Front, further degrading the Utah population center's air quality.

Sound far-fetched?

It's happened before. Los Angeles dewatered the Owens Valley in California, beginning in 1913 with completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The drying up of Owens Lake has resulted in the valley being called the largest source of fugitive dust in the United States.

Members of the Utah Legislature aren't usually the kind of folks to raise environmental alarms. But they are concerned enough to ask Congress for $6 million for the U.S. Geological Survey to further study the possible consequences of pumping ground water from east-central Nevada and piping it to Las Vegas.

We believe that study is warranted. One reason is that a draft U.S. Geological Survey study published earlier this year concluded that the aquifers beneath Spring, Snake and Steptoe valleys are closely linked, and that ground water flows from one valley to another in larger volumes than previously estimated.

That means that if ground water is withdrawn from Nevada's Spring Valley, as the Las Vegas project proposes, it is more likely than originally thought to affect the springs, seeps and wells in Snake Valley, 70 percent of which lies in Utah.

Utah ranchers would be the first to get thirsty. But if water tables were to plummet to the point that vegetation dies off, the dust bowl nightmare could become more than a bad dream.

In truth, no one knows for certain what the environmental consequences of the Las Vegas pipeline would be. The Nevada state engineer has urged caution, ruling that the Southern Nevada Water Authority may take 40,000 acre-feet of water a year from Spring Valley for 10 years. But he has ordered close monitoring, and if existing water rights were impacted, or the pumping were found to be environmentally unsound, Las Vegas would be ordered to curtail pumping or to mitigate the loss.

Trouble is, once Las Vegas has invested billions of dollars in a 285-mile pipeline network and wells, we doubt the city could be forced to turn off the tap.

And Utah could be left in the dust.




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