How it’s done in the desert

Posted on | August 2, 2009 | 4 Comments

A Snake Valley stream flowing from Big Springs near Baker, Nevada. Aerial photo: Terry Marasco

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.

Click here for Senator Reid’s account of the bill’s haul for Nevada, which also includes another $75.7 million for the Walker Lake project.

Aerial photo of Big Springs, Snake Valley: Terry Marasco.


4 Responses to “How it’s done in the desert”

  1. Paul F. Miller
    August 5th, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    First, I have never met Ms. Mulroy though from the plethora of articles written about her, it would appear her peers find her capable while perhaps a bit intimidating. I choose to believe she operates SNWA in the manner which this Board of Directors feel is in the best interest of Las Vegas. As a native LV, born there in ’43, I am a quite aware that being a risk taker, pushing the envelope, and even being “in-your-face” are attributes which can endure one to LV residents. Ms. Mulroy seems to encapsulate them quite well.

    In retrospect the water allocations pursuant to the 1922 Compact of the River one might conclude were, depending upon one’s current perspective, wrong, and certainly LV drew an extremely short straw.

    As a resident of the “west” I was raised to understand the value as well as to respect – water – though I can not claim I always did so. As a resident of the West one quickly learns that when deprived of water an individual, a community or an area turns seemingly overnight into a dust bowl supporting only scattered tumbleweeds and deserted buildings.

    I understand LV desire to continue to grow and to grow without restriction. Perhaps as a result of circumstances LV will be the first in a long line of “metro” areas which will be required to curtail growth as a result of – water – limitation. Arguably this is not the goal or vision which LV set for it’s self and understandably civic leaders and politicians will pontificate alternatives seeking relief from such a future. Governing in such an environment requires a quite different set of attributes than those required in a cavalier environment of damn the torpedoes full speed ahead.

    Westerners developed a generational attitude about – water – and in part water was seen to belong to those willing to fight for it and defend it at all cost. To suggest it is easy to lay aside this attitude and seek resolution to the water dilemmas of the west through mutual cooperation is at best risky and tricky, especially given Nevada’s gambling heritage. It is possible, but, perhaps not probable until leadership advocating a different paradigm can be attained.


  2. admin
    August 5th, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

    Well said. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment.

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