Posted on | August 2, 2009 | 4 Comments
A REMORSELESS game of political chess being played out by the two driest states in the country moved inexorably toward checkmate last week in Washington DC.
Mount Wheeler, the peak whose snowmelt feeds this stream in the Great Basin Desert, stands in Nevada. But Wheeler’s water serves Snake Valley, which straddles the Nevada-Utah border.
Congressional maneuvering over which state has the rights to how much of Mt Wheeler’s water began in 2004, when in a land bill pushed by the Nevada delegation, Congress granted right of way for a Las Vegas pipeline that would eventually run hundreds of miles into the Great Basin to tap Snake Valley.
But hours before the vote, Utah Senator Bob Bennett slipped a clause into the bill dictating that no water could be taken from border valleys without Utah’s consent.
As negotiations took months, then years, Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy became so incensed by what she regarded as an Utahan “veto” on the Las Vegas pipeline that in 2006 she threatened the editorial board of the Salt Lake Tribune. The longer Utah delayed approval of Las Vegas’ water withdrawals from Snake Valley, she said, “the more uncomfortable it will become for Utah. If they can do it to another state, they can have it done to them, too.”
Mulroy proceeded to file protests with the Utah Department of Natural Resources on Utahan groundwater applications within Beaver and Iron counties.
But the big screws turned in Washington DC, where Nevada Senator Harry Reid, whose roots are in Las Vegas, was then assuming the office of the Senate Majority Leader. At the close of the 2006 session, Reid managed to forget a Utah land bill sponsored by Bennett in committee while Reid’s sister land bill for Nevada was slipped into law in the dead of night as a rider attached to health care legislation.
At first, the Nevadan tactics only fueled Utahan skepticism that Snake Valley could afford to lose the 50,000 acre feet of water a year (enough for 100,000 families a year) sought by Las Vegas. The Utah state legislature responded by commissioning a pumping study of the Snake Valley aquifer.
This study is ongoing, as are additional studies commissioned by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.
Yet last week the head of the Utah Department of Natural Resources sparked a flurry of reports in the Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News and Reno Gazette-Journal by indicating that Utah was ready to settle before the results of the studies were known, and even before the Nevada State Engineer hears Las Vegas’s case for Snake Valley water.
An editorial followed on Friday, July 31st, in the Salt Lake Tribune demanding why Utah’s department of natural resources was rolling over, seemingly without prompting?
One hundred and one million dollars worth of reasons may be found in the Energy and Water Appropriations bill (HR 3183) that passed two days earlier, with the fulsome support of Bennett’s rival Reid.
Click here for Senator Bennett’s report of the projects in the bill brought home for Utah.
None of the funding for this long list of projects would have been possible without the support of Senator Reid, who only needs Snake Valley’s water for Las Vegas to better remember Senator Bennett’s agenda for Utah.
Is this any way to manage water? Surely not. Is it the way it’s done? Absolutely.
This post has been updated.
Aerial photo of Big Springs, Snake Valley: Terry Marasco.