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Posted: September 11, 2008     Author: Dean Baker

Legacy of the SNWA Pipeline?

Legacy of the SNWA Pipeline?

There is a great demand for increased water supplies for Las Vegas to sustain its rampant growth. Is a pipeline into another dry part of Nevada the answer or just a pipe dream? Is it a visionary solution, or a legacy of disaster, leaving debt, dried up desert, and dust from lack of water? SNWA proposes to build a pipeline to the driest part of the driest state in the U.S.

The water laws of the West, particularly Utah and Nevada, were written and debated in a very different time and environment than today. There are many differences now, population and growth perhaps being the most significant.

While there was no stopping of interbasin transfers, there was probably no thought or consideration of using modern methods of constructing several hundred miles of pipelines moving water like the Southern Nevada Water (SNWA) project intends. If it had been considered I believe there would have been restrictions in the underground water laws.

The ability to extract and use underground water is much larger and efficient today than when underground water law was written. It is like comparing a World War I airplane to the current jet airplane. Windmills pumped much of the underground water 80 years ago; now large deep wells with electric motors and pumps produce the water.

Another aspect is that we are just now in the process of learning the consequences of pumping of underground water. The fact is that large scale underground water pumping should be viewed as a mining operation. This means that the resource is depleted and is not able to be replenished over time. The water mining of the Ogallala aquifer through Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and other states will have a significant impact on the U.S. as a whole The water level of the Ogallala is going down with the loss of water for cities as well as a huge agricultural area. Much of the food we consume comes from this area.

Most aquifers that are being significantly pumped have problems of water table decline and changes in water quality. The best aquifers like Las Vegas Valley, the bottom drain of the bathtub for a large part of Nevada so to speak, to higher valleys like Diamond Valley, in Eureka County, nearer to the top of the bathtub. All are facing a dropping water table.

The underground water laws were mostly written to serve agriculture, which used gas engines and flood irrigation on a small local farm or ranch. It was not unusual for these pumps to only be used in dry years to supplement stream flow water. Sprinkler irrigation was something in the future as were humans living in areas where water to drink has to be imported long distances.

Agricultural use today efficiently uses underground water on larger acreages with automated sprinkler systems. The agricultural production from these underground water sources is significant and important to the U.S . economy and as a source of our food.

The back side of this underground water use is that in most areas the falling water table is already leaving negative impacts that were unforeseen. Springs are ceasing to flow, with wildlife and livestock losing their water sources. Plants that depend on their roots going into groundwater are dying, and dust storms are appearing in the changing landscape. Additional consequences will appear in the future.

Sadly, the SNWA pipeline project is being proposed into areas that are already showing these impacts from underground water pumping. Snake Valley has had several springs dry up caused by pumping underground water. At one of these springs, Needle Point, a dozen wild horses died of thirst before anyone knew the spring was dry. There was no history of Needle Point Spring no flowing until underground water started being pumped about one mile away.

There is a large difference between this long term SNWA underground water mining project and past agricultural uses. The investment will be huge, multi-billions of dollars. People and businesses will become dependent on the water to live, making it impossible to shut the water off. This will cause the water to used as long as possible regardless of impact, thus creating the Legacy of the Southern Nevada Water Authority Pipeline.

The future of the Southern Nevada Water Authority will create a legacy for itself and for proponents such as Harry Reid. Those who promote the project today and those who will control and operate the project 30 years after it starts will be saddled with one of the worst legacies in the history of the U.S.

It appears to me that most knowledgeable people who do not have financial or political interest in the SNWA proposal don't believe it is right or will in the end of the answer for southern Nevada. Governor Mike O'Callaghan opposed the project. The Utah Division of Natural Resources questions the wisdom of more underground water pumping in western Utah whether it is agriculture, the city of St. George, or SNWA. Others like Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman say that Las Vegas will only run out of water if Las Vegas runs out of money. The Mayor may find Mother Nature will be very hard to buy water from.

The pipeline project has negative aspects for Las Vegas citizens. Healthcare and education deteriorate with rapid growth. The project will create problems for the resort hotels and gaming industry. Their position of being the entertainment capital of the world should stay their #1 goal.

If Las Vegas continues to grow and become one of the largest cities in the West, it will be detrimental to the gaming and entertainment industry. There are already traffic, crime, air pollution, and other problems. If Las Vegas continues to grow in its present manner, all of these problems will only accelerate but with new problems like water shortages and more environmental challenges.

There is enough water for Las Vegas now. Why would there be a desire to endanger today's position as the entertainment capital of the world to simply bring in more population. The industry will then be part of creating the negative environmental legacy of the pipeline project.

It would appear that it would be much more logical for future growth to build in the manner of the MGM-Mirage City Center. This project is being construction in an environmental responsible manner with water conservation, both indoor and outdoor, as a major goal.

From the start of the EIS process to now, SNWA has already doubled the amount of water it wants from Snake Valley (from 25,000 to 50,000 acre feet), showing a glimpse of the future.

In 30 years, the operators will still be building power lines, pipelines, and drilling wells along with going into new territories to keep water running in this multi-billion dollar pipeline. Project promoters do not have sufficient information to know if there will be water to keep the pipeline operational as it is planned.

The cost of this project includes massive amounts of publicly sell and to legislatively barter the project. The cost of finding water and building the project will be huge, much more than publicly projected. The next cost will be the start and continuation of the environmental problems which will continue well beyond the cessation of pumping.

It will be difficult to pay back the billions of dollars of debt because of the unforeseen and unplanned costs due to the lack of water and environmental problems.

The end legacy will be dust, vegetation losses and irreversible changes. Wildlife habitat will be lost due to non-existing feed, water, and growing environmental problems. It is a legacy that will not be good for Las Vegas or the State of Nevada, but the legacy will be catastrophic for the people of Eastern Nevada.