McEntee: Arguments about Snake Valley water turn to dust under local scrutiny

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If you make the four-hour drive to the Snake Valley to meet cowman Cecil Garland, he'll invite you to lunch on the screened porch of his century-old house on Cattle Drive.

On Friday, it's meatloaf made from his own beef, corn on the cob, tomatoes and summer squash from his garden, straight-from-the-cow sweet milk and unsweetened butter churned right here.

It's just about the most delicious meal I can remember. But lunch is just prelude: We're here to talk about water.

Garland, a tall, handsome man of 83, has spent the past four years fighting Nevada's plan to pump water from the Snake Valley aquifer to thirsty Las Vegas, and he's unrelenting.

At stake is Utah's share of the water beneath the 100-mile-long valley, which straddles the state line with Nevada. But there's more -- an environmental catastrophe that could transform an arid place into a dust bowl that would send huge amounts of airborne particles all the way to the already polluted Wasatch Front.

Garland was in Las Vegas on Thursday for a monthly meeting of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which ended with a vote to pursue its plan for a 285-mile pipeline, which could cost billions of dollars, and which Garland thinks is utter folly.

"There's a big rush to get this agreement done," Garland said. "I think they can see the fire coming over the hill on this thing. Even in Las Vegas, the sentiment against this is growing rather rapidly."

Problem is, the water that Nevada wants just isn't there, Garland said. "We're one of the driest valleys in the driest area of the United States. The springs are drying up or have dried up, the artesian wells have dried up or already have dried up, the water table is falling and the vegetation is already under stress and suffering.

"Now, somewhere those folks down there have got to pick up the thread of reason."

And, to prove his point, Garland took a Tribune photographer and me on a field trip.


Dead wood » The three of us crowded in his Dodge pickup, Garland takes us out to a field he'd recently swapped with another rancher to show us a swimming hole that had dried up, collapsed in on itself and now is just a reed-filled depression. We bumped through another field to check out the greasewood, a native species that serves as a monitor for the land's condition. Here, there's dead wood among the living plants.

Garland tells us he grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains, and served as an aircraft mechanic in the Army Air Force in England during World War II. As a kid, he had dreamed of living in the West, and after the war, he landed in Las Vegas ("I was a shill at a gambling house for $6 a day") and then Montana. In 1973, he came to Callao, population 40.

Once, Garland tells us, Lake Bonneville covered this valley, and the soil -- made up of "decayed vegetable matter and bird poop" -- is true peat that can burn for months if accidentally ignited.

To the west is the Deep Creek Range, with peaks of up to 12,000 feet; and its melting snow pack -- Garland calls it new water -- feeds the aquifer under Callao. But there also is old water, a relic of the Ice Age, Garland says, and the pressure between the two is what produces springs.

"It's a beautiful system," he says. "The only thing about it is you start tearing one piece of it apart, and it's like raveling out a sweater, it just keeps coming apart, and that's what we're talking about."

Bottom line, Garland said, the notion that Nevada can take this water, pump it to Las Vegas, and leave enough for the Snake Valley ranchers is nonsense.

Finally, he takes us to see his cattle grazing on a green field that produced the huge stack of hay bales near the fence. The cows are sturdy Red Angus, with auburn hides and faces that seem to have a quizzical look.

When I ask how many head he has, Garland gently tells me it's impolite to ask. "To a cowman, it's like asking how much money he's got," he said, but he forgives me.


Water grab not justified » So we stand in the late afternoon light and take in Deep Creek's granite flanks and peaks. The air is clean and dry, and there are bird songs in the wind.

"I'm only thankful the Lord let me live long enough to see this," Garland says. "Ain't that a deal?"

I think back to what he was telling me before, that the science isn't there to justify Nevada's water grab that could spell the end of the Snake Valley ranches. "They simply look at the small number of people here and say they just don't count."

Well, I've been to Las Vegas, seen the ugly sprawl now foundering in the recession, and now I've seen the Snake Valley.

Fold your cards, Nevada. The valley wins.

Peg McEntee is a columnist. Reach her at