Makes sense to them

Posted on | July 26, 2009 | No Comments


THE EDITORIAL board of the Las Vegas Sun knows a scientific result when it suits the board’s purposes. According to the board, climate modeling out of the University of Colorado showing the potential of the main storage reservoirs on the Colorado River to go dry by mid-century is all the more reason that the Southern Nevada Water Authority should run a pipeline 300 miles north to the foot of the Great Basin National Park and pump its groundwater south to Las Vegas.

“Southern Nevada is smart not to put all its emphasis on a single water source [the Colorado River],” the editorial board wrote. “A proposed pipeline that would bring in water from rural Northern Nevada is one option that makes sense.”

The editorial board’s stance is not new. In a February 2008, it wrote, “We came out in support of the pipeline in 2006, after years of reviewing the plan and interviewing water officials to ensure that only excess water from untapped deep aquifers would be piped here. The farmers and ranchers draw their water from more shallow wells. Laws governing the pipeline project would mandate steady monitoring of the deep aquifers to guard against any water loss that would alter the ranchers’ and farmers’ way of life.”

Skimming over the facts that water tables drop whether water is pumped from deep or shallow wells and there is no “excess” water in the driest state in the country, the editorial board is missing the most likely outcome of the Las Vegas pipeline plan: destruction of the Great Basin.

One need only visit Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra to see what happened after Los Angeles began funneling its water south roughly a century ago. Since drying out Owens Lake, then proceeding to pump its groundwater, Los Angeles created what in the 1980s and 90s became the worst source of particulate pollution in the country (see photo of dust sweeping off of the Owens Valley playa).

To remediate the damage, Los Angeles now has to leave behind as much as 90,000 acre feet of water a year in Owens Valley to saturate the soil desiccated by its groundwater pumping. Contractor fees alone to slosh water over the playa, plant (and irrigate) salt grass and generally flail against the elements have cost Los Angeles more than $100m and left it mired in a law suit with the contractor that has far from completed the job.

That is for one valley. Las Vegas intends to pump five valleys in the Great Basin, each roughly the size of Owens Valley.

And here’s the catch: all five valleys have only a fraction of the Owens Valley recharge. Recharge means how much water naturally flows into a place each year. The less recharge you have, the faster you lower the groundwater table from pumping. The faster you do that, the worse the dust.

Las Vegas only stands to get roughly 150,000 acre feet of water a year from those five valleys combined. If the Los Angeles model is anything to go by, when inevitable damage occurs, Southern Nevada won’t have enough water to undertake dust remediation.

Or if it does, it won’t have water to pump south.

It could well be that fifty years down the line, not only will the Colorado River be under stress, but all Las Vegas will have from the Great Basin pipeline venture will be dust, bills, law suits and ignominy.

Still make sense?

This post has been updated.


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