Posted on | March 1, 2011 | 1 Comment
Two decades ago, a plan to tap the Great Basin Aquifer in five Nevada valleys through a nearly 300-mile-long pipeline to slake inexorably booming Las Vegas was a back-up plan. Plan A was that Nevada’s relatively small allocation from the Colorado River could be increased. Las Vegas is, after all, twenty miles from Lake Mead, the largest storage reservoir in the U.S.
Yet when Western cities kept booming after the Colorado River entered long-term drought in 1991, Plan B became Plan A. Tapping the aquifer of the glorious and sparsely populated counties of Nevada’s Great Basin Desert became a central pillar of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s long term water plan. Steve Wynn’s and Kirk Kerkorian’s empires depended on it, and so did the livelihoods of a lot of casino workers enticed to the Mojave by the gaming industry.
It was not a moral plan, not an environmentally sound one either, but thanks to political heft it was working until cracks began appearing in the legal groundwork. In a series of court cases in 2009 and 2010, Las Vegas was stripped of its water awards from four rural basins. In one case, the State Engineer was found to have awarded water from three valleys without credible evidence that adequate supplies existed. In a further case covering every target valley, the State Supreme Court then found that the State Engineer had denied protestants their due process rights by allowing punishing delays in hearings.
Victory was bittersweet. The protestants didn’t win. Rather, they now get to fight a two decade-old war all over again. This week, the Great Basin Network, formed to fight claims first published in 1989, announced state-wide workshops to help rural Nevadans again go through the expensive and time consuming process of filing legal protests that will ensure them status in upcoming hearings. The first workshop begins Thursday in Las Vegas. Click here for details. The protest period will close March 24th. For a schedule outlining subsequent hearings, click here to be taken to the Nevada State Engineer.
On a separate front, the Bureau of Land Management’s long promised draft Environmental Impact Statement studying the ultimate environmental cost of the project has suffered repeated delays. This update from the BLM gives Waiting for Models as a key reason for the continuing lag. By models, they mean hydrological studies designed to estimate the impact of proposed pumping on groundwater levels. In 2008, when a key Las Vegas modeler turned whistleblower, it became evident that modeling done for the now legally discredited hearings was suppressed. As protestants had it, the models were kept out of evidence because they showed Las Vegas pumping would do irreparable damage to the water table and hence air quality of the Great Basin. Among the places potentially downwind of Vegas-induced dust storms is Salt Lake City. However, as Las Vegas water managers had it, it would never have come to that. The problem as they described it was that the models were junk and the whistleblower was unstable. Spring is the new due date for the BLM draft statement.
In the meantime, while the recession has amounted to the next best thing to a resource-appropriate development plan for America’s most famous desert city, the prospect of more water from Lake Mead for Las Vegas has been steadily shrinking. The closing elevation of Lake Mead at the end of February 2011 was 1095.78 feet, more than 106 feet lower than the same month in 1989, when Las Vegas water managers were first seriously fixing their eyes on Great Basin groundwater. Meanwhile, the population of Greater Las Vegas and Clark County has gone in the same period from slightly less than 700,00 to roughly two million. Click here for historical elevations of Lake Mead going back to its impoundment by Hoover Dam. Click here for Planned Parenthood and here for Gamblers Anonymous. Senator, the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem.