Water Grabs Threaten the Future of Rural Communities and Wildlife Throughout the Great Basin

The news today is filled with stories of large urban areas and private developers targeting rural water to support breakneck growth in western cities. These water grabs will result in the drilling of hundreds of deep wells, pumping enormous amounts of groundwater, and piping it in some cases hundreds of miles to support urban and suburban sprawl developers. Yet, the water is sought from places least able to supply it.

Where is the Great Basin Desert?

The Great Basin, stretching from Utah's Great Salt Lake to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and from southern Idaho to southern California, is an arid land. Average rainfall in Nevada, the heart of the Great Basin, is a mere 7 inches per year with some areas averaging less than 5 inches per year. Much of western Utah and eastern California match that dryness in their own portions of the Great Basin. Dry is a natural condition in the Great Basin, but it's been even drier in eastern Nevada and western Utah where a drying trend has been going on for more than a decade. See the U.S. Drought Monitor for current drought conditions.

The limited water throughout the Great Basin has produced century-old, small and hardy agricultural communities where production of bountiful crops and livestock depend on shallow groundwater, large regional springs, and small creeks. Each of these sources of water depend on healthy groundwater flows supported by precipitation in mountain ranges which receive more moisture than the valleys. Water is critical to the Great Basin's plants and animals including unique species found only in regional springs – springs which are directly threatened by pumping of groundwater.

Below are just some of the water grabs underway in Nevada and Utah to use rural water for urban sprawl. Check out our online petition to express your concern for the future of the Great Basin Desert rural communities and wildlife.

Up to 200,000 acre-feet annually of Great Basin's groundwater
headed to Las Vegas?

The Southern Nevada Water Authority, the water agency for Las Vegas, Henderson, and N. Las Vegas proposes to pump up to 200,000 acre-feet annually from eastern Nevada and send it through 300 miles of pipeline to support the area's uncontrolled growth. The cost is currently estimated at $3.5 billion dollars.

Just how much water is 200,000 acre-feet annually? It is more than 65 billion gallons of water – every year. (That's equivalent to the average flow of Nevada's only river contained entirely within the State – the famed Humboldt River.) SNWA claims that it can pump and permanently remove the water from the eastern Nevada's desert valleys without any harm to people or to wildlife.

Independent hydrologists dispute it is possible to pump and export so much water without causing major environmental degradation and destroying the livelihoods of rural residents in eastern Nevada and western Utah. The area targeted for the massive pumping proposal is home to National Wildlife Refuges in Nevada and Utah, important state wildlife management areas, Native American communities and dozens of small, rural agricultural communities who have been living in balance with the limited water supplies of the region for over a century. Great Basin National Park is surrounded by the proposed groundwater pump and export project. The proposed pumping scheme would bring two hundred or more wells with power lines, roads, and linked buried pipelines to cover the valleys on both sides of the National Park – some right on the border of the park. Communities like Baker, Nevada on the Utah border would have large production wells in their backyard sending local water to a city 300 miles away. Ranchers throughout the Snake Valley believe that water they depend on for their agricultural livelihoods will "dry up" if the project is approved.

A recent report by the Pacific Institute outlines the steps Las Vegas, Henderson, and N. Las Vegas could take today to save nearly 90,000 acre-feet of water per year without importing a single drop. Check out Hidden Oasis: Water Conservation and Efficiency in Las Vegas.

Learn more: "Understanding Environmental Issues related to the Southern Nevada Water Authority's Proposed Groundwater Development Project" for how the proposed pipeline project will damage people and wildlife.

North Valleys Groundwater to support urban sprawl in Reno?

The North Valleys Pipeline Project is being seriously talked about once again to support sprawl development in the Reno-Sparks area. Both cities are attempting to annex huge undeveloped lands in order to facilitate rapid urban expansion. The meager groundwater from desert valleys in northern Washoe County is being sought to continue growth. Even with all the water the north valleys could conceivably provide, the cities growth plans still come up short on water – by a lot.

Coyote Springs – a huge golf development in the Mojave Desert.

The new, golf course based city in Coyote Spring Valley in southern Nevada would demand at least 80,000 acre-feet of groundwater annually to supply the development. Currently in its "beginnings" with one of the golf courses nearing completion in 2008 and with plans to build 160,000 houses on 18 golf courses, the massive development in the Mojave Desert is the brain child of Reno lawyer and lobbyist turned developer, Harvey Whitemore. A small portion of the groundwater is being sought within the valley itself. Pumping within Coyote Spring Valley could harm critical springs in the Moapa National Wildlife Refuge just a few miles to the south and Lake Mead National Recreation Area, but the majority of the groundwater would still have to come from more than a hundred miles away. And, the developer plans to pump most of that water from the desert in eastern Nevada and pipe the water using the publicly financed pipeline the SNWA is currently trying to get permission to build. Coyote Springs Development would occupy a valley which currently has no permanent residents and is 60 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

Coal-fired Power Plants

Three coal-fired power plants using the Great Basin's limited surface and groundwater for needed cooling and power generation are also being considered for eastern Nevada. Coal-fired power generation is one of the largest consumers of water in the west. With abundant geothermal, wind, and solar resources, Nevada should not be importing coal hundreds of miles to burn in a power plant while consuming huge amounts of the Great Basin Desert's limited surface and ground water.

More water for growth in St. George, Utah? Pipeline from
Lake Powell proposed.

Even though the Colorado River flows are clearly declining, states still want to stick in new straws. Some officials and developers in St. George, UT and nearby communities are promoting a pipeline project to pump 100,000 acre-feet of water annually from Lake Powell (filled by water from the Colorado River) to support uncontrolled growth striking the region. Pipeline construction would stretch more than 100 miles and need to lift the water 2800 ft in elevation before filling a surface reservoir for distribution to more urban sprawl in southern Utah. Using ever more of the Colorado River's shrinking water supply, affects all water rights on the river and continues the harm to numerous fish and wildlife species once bountiful in the river. Population growth in the southwest including s. Utah and s. Nevada threatens to unravel the region's ecosystem; coupled with global warming it could spell disaster for old as well as new residents of the southwest, too. St. George residents currently are huge water consumers. The first step before seeking new and tenuous sources of water should be to stop wasteful water use practices common throughout the desert southwest. St George has one of the highest residential water use in the entire west. (See Hidden Oasis: Water Conservation and Efficiency in Las Vegas and The Importance of Ground Water to Rivers in the West.)

Consequences of pumping are huge.

The groundwater pumped to support growth and development in sprawling urban areas will come from lands least able to afford the loss of water. Much of the eastern Great Basin Desert hosts much of its biodiversity in local and regional springs and wetlands. The degradation of these areas from groundwater pumping will permanently impact the now balanced water uses of the area. Springs and wetlands support the human communities in these rural lands as well as wildlife. Water is in equilibrium currently in those areas now being looked at for groundwater development. Once pumping starts, existing desert landscapes will be changed forever as plants die, springs decrease flow or dry up, and wetlands desiccate. There is no "unused" water in a desert. Removing groundwater by capturing the "perennial yield" eliminates local recharge which sustains the environment within the valley.

What are the threats from water grabs to fuel explosive, urban growth?

  • drawing down water tables destroying a century-in-the-making of farmer and rancher communities,
  • killing thousands of acres of deep rooted shrub and wetland plant communities leading to "dust bowl" conditions,
  • drying up critical waters for endangered and sensitive plant, animal, and fish species,
  • harming Nevada, Utah and California National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, State Parks, and State Wildlife Areas by lowering groundwater and diminishing even extinguishing forever springs, wetlands, and creeks within and adjacent to these protected areas,
  • damaging or destroying regional springs and wetlands which support rural communities and wildlife,
  • damaging or destroying rural livelihoods and economies,
  • hurting residents of cities by lowering quality of life with increasing congestion, traffic, pollution and escalating infrastructure costs resulting from unbridled growth,
  • damaging public lands with power lines, pipeline routes, roads, and security,
  • damaging rural tourism economy,
  • saddling taxpayers with the costs of pumping and pipelines and power demands - subsidizing developer's pocketbooks

What can I do?

Decisions on water projects are being made every day – by local governments, state legislatures, and congress. Use our Web site to stay informed on news and events and actions you can take. Help us spread knowledge of the problems of grabbing rural water and support sustainable communities through conservation and reuse and oppose exporting rural water to support urban sprawl.

Sign our online petition to show your opposition to the water grabs.

Understanding Environmental Issues related to the Southern Nevada Water Authority's Proposed Groundwater Development Project

March 2008

  • The Proposed Groundwater Development Project's pipelines would stretch 300 miles through 6 valleys in eastern Nevada's Great Basin Desert.
  • Groundwater pumping would fill the pipelines for delivery to the Las Vegas Metropolitan area (Las Vegas, N. Las Vegas, Henderson, Clark County area) over 250 miles away from the most northern pumping locations.
  • Groundwater pumping is proposed to remove 180,000 to 200,000 acre-feet of groundwater in 6 Nevada valleys (most from Spring Valley: 91,000 acre-feet and Snake Valley: 50,000 acre-feet. In a 2007 ruling the State Engineer allowed the SNWA to pump 40,000 acre-feet from Spring Valley annually while monitoring the effects for a ten year period before permitting an additional 20,000 acre-feet. He also required a 5 year period to collect baseline information)
  • Great Basin National Park is flanked by Spring Valley on its west and Snake Valley on its east.
  • Studies by the USGS showed that proposed groundwater pumping in Spring and Snake Valleys will impact both ground and surface water in and adjacent to the National Park.
  • Groundwater in Snake Valley flows toward the Great Salt Lake Desert and supports agricultural communities in both Nevada and Utah.
  • Existing ranches and farms in the Spring and Snake Valleys depend on the high groundwater table to support meadows as well as surface streams and springs used for irrigation.
  • Groundwater in Spring Valley supports many springs including Shoshone ponds home to threatened and endangered pupfish. Groundwater also supports a unique forest of Rocky Mountain Juniper in the Valley bottoms.
  • Groundwater from the other Valleys Cave, Dry Lake, and Delamar support the "White River Groundwater Flow System" which is associated with several large regional springs including well known springs such as Sunnyside, Hiko, Crystal, Ash, and numerous wetlands, meadows, seeps, and smaller springs. Wildlife and ranching throughout the White River Valley is dependent on springs.
  • Wildlife management areas at Sunnyside and Hiko and a National Wildlife Refuge at Pahranagat depend on the flows from the regional springs.
  • Further south in the flow system the Moapa Warm Springs, home to the Moapa National Wildlife Refuge, forms the source of the Muddy River, a tributary to the Colorado River and flows into Lake Mead. The Muddy River represents the most significant
  • Moapa Warm Springs is home to the endangered Moapa Dace and other threatened species of small fish which have evolved in the warm spring waters.
  • Groundwater pumping produces drawdowns of the groundwater table which very likely will impact surface water and springs which support many wildlife species in this desert region.
  • A groundwater model developed by White Pine County for Spring Valley show substantial drawdowns of over 100 feet after just 15 years of pumping groundwater as proposed. Drawdowns of this magnitude will kill plants and dry up springs with a resulting loss in wildlife and endangered fish habitats.
  • The Las Vegas area has an allocation of water out of the Colorado River of 300,000 acre-feet per year which it takes from Lake Mead. Lake Mead is the reservoir formed by Hoover Dam. The SNWA pumps the water out of Lake Mead for municipal and industrial use within the Valley. It also pumps 50,000 acre-feet per year from wells within Las Vegas Valley. It is buying out farm land along the Virgin and Muddy river and putting those water rights into Lake Mead adding to its total supply. Southern Nevada uses all of Nevada's allocation from the Colorado River.
  • The Las Vegas area had a population of around 2 million in 2008 and is growing without restraint despite an ongoing drought on the Colorado River and clear indications that shortages on the Colorado River could be felt in the very near future.
  • Groundwater pumping in the Las Vegas Valley has lowered the groundwater level there 300 feet and dried up the large springs and meadows that gave Las Vegas – "the meadows" – its name.
  • An example already exists for the removal of large amounts of water from rural desert areas and fueling explosive growth in a distant city. The City of Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th century took water from the Owens River in eastern California. The result of the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct was that the Owens River dried up, Owens Lake and local agriculture disappeared and the economy suffered. In the 1950's the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power started to pump groundwater, too. The result from groundwater pumping dramatically changed the valley once again, drying remaining vegetation and destroying springs and wetlands throughout the valley. The loss of Owens Lake left a huge playa of alkali and salt deposits which create an huge dust problem whenever the wind blows. The serious issues related to the removal of the valleys surface and groundwater continue 100 years later.

Quick links:

Where is the Great Basin Desert

Great Basin's groundwater headed to Las Vegas?

North Valleys Groundwater to support urban sprawl in Reno?

Coyote Springs – a huge golf development in the Mojave Desert

Coal-fired power plants

More water for growth in St. George, Utah? Pipeline proposed

Consequences of pumping are huge

What are the threats from water grabs for explosive growth?

What can I do?

Understanding the environmental issues related to the Southern Nevada Water Authority's proposed groundwater development project


US Dought Monitor

Hidden Oasis: Water Conservation and Efficiency in Las Vegas

Water Conservation Publications