A water expert says pumping Snake Valley groundwater to Las Vegas would amount to "mining" and would leave the valley depleted and its ranchers without the means to survive.
So why isn't Utah putting its foot down and saying we will not be signing an agreement that would create a $15.5 billion project to send Snake Valley water to Sin City? To his credit, Gov. Gary Herbert is still looking at details and holding out, but the potential for a lawsuit from Nevada water officials has to weigh on his mind
When I think of Snake Valley, I think of Cecil Garland, a tough old cowman who has ferociously battled Nevada's efforts to drill for both new and ancient waters beneath the Snake and Nevada's Spring Valley.
I met Garland a few years ago at his ranch in western Utah's Callao, just east of the Deep Creek Range. He predicted that if the water were pumped out, the natural system would unravel like the yarn of an old sweater.
That would endanger the livelihoods of all the area's residents, not to mention the plants, animals, birds and fish. Experts have argued that the desert could turn barren, leaving particulates and dust to be swept eastward by the wind, endangering the Wasatch Front and fouling its already polluted air.
But earlier this month, a trio of water lawyers told Herbert that a 2009 agreement between Utah and Nevada to go ahead with the project would protect Utah water rights and habitat, including Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, where 10,000 acres of spring-fed habitat provide a haven for migrating and wintering birds.
Officials in Millard and Juab counties have sternly opposed the pipeline, and Herbert has sensibly stopped short of signing the 2009 agreement with Nevada. As Steve Erickson, of the Great Basin Water Network, says, any drilling is decades away, if at all, so what's the motivation to push the deal when it's so far way. And, the Bureau of Land Management In October issued an environmental impact statement that recommends no pumping in the Snake Valley for the reasons above and more.
Now there's another reason to be suspicious. Earlier this month, a Brigham Young University geochemistry professor, Steve Nelson, wrote an op-ed for The Salt Lake Tribune saying that considerable research needs to be done to understand how old and new waters intermingle and what consequences drilling would bring.
He said the traditional "interbasin flow model" maintains that fractured limestones beneath both areas allow water to freely flow.
But research on the Spring and Snake valleys found that each basin behaves independently, and "whenever groundwater is extracted faster than it is replenished, it is being mined," Nelson wrote, meaning that the Snake Valley could be quickly depleted and it would take centuries to replenish it, if ever.
This is what Garland and fellow water users have argued for years. He had shown me a dried-up swimming hole and dead greasewood, a native species that serves as a monitor for the land's condition. Both are indicators of the ever-lower water levels found in his wells.
We also stood in the early evening, watching for pronghorns that bound through his fields, hawks on the hunt and the shadows and light of the Deep Creeks.
There is so much to protect and preserve out there. What a shame it would be to lose it.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @pegmcentee.