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Water authorities in Las Vegas want to build a 275-mile pipeline to pump groundwater from upstate Nevada valleys to Sin City. The project would cost an estimated $15.5 billion, according to a new study. That's a considerable sum, even for high rollers, but the new study concludes that Las Vegas could afford the project, though it would double residential water bills to about $90 a month.

What the financing study does not tally is the environmental cost. Sucking 184,655 acre-feet of groundwater per year from the aquifers beneath arid central and eastern Nevada could cause plant life on the surface to die and clouds of dust to blow all the way to Utah's Wasatch Front. Water is precious in the West, and nowhere more so than in Nevada and Utah.

That's why it is critical for Westerners to learn to conserve the water they have and get by on it, rather than try to tap sources of groundwater or surface water that are already overallocated. By that we mean that there already are more rights allocated for the water than there is actual water available.

Global climate change compounds the importance of these decisions. As temperatures warm and patterns of rain and snow change, it is folly to plan to take more water from beneath the ground or from surface sources like the Colorado River. The amounts that already are being used are very likely unsustainable and will not be available as the climate warms.

More specific to Utah is concern about the 100-mile-long Snake Valley, which straddles the Utah/Nevada state line. The Southern Nevada Water Authority wants 50,000 acre-feet of water from the valley's aquifer, though, under a proposed agreement with Utah, it would settle for 36,000 acre-feet. Even that lesser amount, however, would cause water tables to plummet, and by the time managers figured out the scale of permanent damage, it could be irreversible.

Turning off the spigot to save the aquifer would be particularly difficult if Las Vegas had already invested billions in a pipeline and pumping system.

The folly of the Las Vegas project is matched only by the Lake Powell Pipeline, Utah's own scheme to pump 82,000 acre-feet annually over 200 miles from the lake to St. George and Cedar City. That would cost about $1.5 billion.

Preliminary studies show those Utah communities could pay that price, too. But if the climate warms and the Colorado River shrinks, it will be hard to pay the bills for a dry pipeline.