Posted on | March 23, 2012 | No Comments
It was never supposed to be a fight. When 22 years ago Las Vegas water manager Pat Mulroy first filed claims on all the theoretically unappropriated water in five rural valleys in eastern Nevada, opponents were supposed to roll over or be crushed. In Mulroy’s corner were all the money and influence that Vegas could bring to bear. A remark reportedly made early in 2007 by Mulroy during a Las Vegas Sun editorial board meeting summed up the odds. In it, when asked what she would do if the State Engineer denied her claims, Mulroy allegedly replied that she would have the Governor of Nevada replace him.
The story may or may not be true*, however, the point is that it could be. It sounds like Pat. No one familiar with what is now newsroom legend doubted then or doubts now that her backers — among them Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Sheldon Adelson and homebuilders such as the Sun’s proprietor Brian Greenspun — collectively had the power to do it. They not only arguably controlled Mulroy, they also controlled the Nevadan congressional delegation of both parties, including by that point US Senate majority leader Harry Reid. They controlled the state legislature. The US Department of Interior’s agencies overseeing the affected territories were so biddable that they signed off on the pumping in exchange for vague monitoring promises before the State Engineer even began hearing Vegas arguments for the water.
The only things that Las Vegas dollars didn’t control were the rural communities in the path of the proposed 300-mile-long pipeline.
Unsurprisingly, in 2007 and 2008, the Nevada State Engineer awarded Las Vegas enough rural groundwater to drop the water table in a valley adjacent to the state’s only national park 200 feet in 75 years.
Goliath 1, David zero.
However, in 2009 a rural judge struck down three of then four pipeline awards secured by Vegas on the grounds that the State Engineer had “acted arbitrarily, capriciously and oppressively.” Then early in 2010, the Nevada Supreme Court voided all groundwater awards, including the largest from Spring Valley, a rare and luscious place fed by streams from surrounding ranges including the glacier atop Mt Wheeler in the Great Basin National Park, on the grounds that the State Engineer had violated the due process rights of the rural protestors by failing to hold timely hearings.
Omnibus hearings covering applications for the voided awards from four valleys were rescheduled for the fall and early winter of 2011. Among the thousands to present arguments against the Vegas claims were ranchers in target valleys, the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Long Now Foundation, local Sierra club chapters and Utah communities downwind of dust storms likely to result from desiccation caused by pumps. Months of presentation were all for nought. Yesterday’s announcement by the State Engineer’s office of fresh awards for Vegas — enough for roughly quarter of a million new households in the repossession capital of America — came back very close to the originals.
Questions as to whether or not the State Engineer is, in fact, in Las Vegas’s pocket, or whether yesterday’s awards were a case of a humiliated engineer’s office giving the digitus impudicus to the two Nevada courts that dared humiliate it, or whether the new awards validate the old ones, are moot to the operator of a scoreboard, where after more than two decades of struggle the count is now Goliath 2, David 1.
Protestors swiftly issued a press release vowing to fight on. A return to court seems inevitable. Meanwhile Las Vegas was crooning about the victory. In a move that will only deepen the jaundice of seasoned observers, a Department of Interior environmental impact statement now in circulation for final comments is expected to sprout new, swiftly approvable parameters for pumping that tally with the amounts awarded yesterday by the State Engineer. When this document is certified, possibly late this spring or this summer, it will amount to a green light to run the Vegas pipeline over hundreds of miles of federal land. The final stages for Mulroy will be raising the staggering sums required to build the pipeline while completing a costly third intake in Lake Mead. To that end, the Review-Journal reported that she’s recently been rattling a cup in Washington DC arguing that nobody could have predicted the ravages of climate change.
More will be posted after reading the hundreds of pages of yesterday’s four separate decisions. Click here for the first of a five-part series written in 2008 for the Las Vegas Sun on the history of the pipeline. For updates since then, use this website’s search key. *The story, it turns out, is true according to this Sun account.