Is Vegas shortstopping Colorado River water?

Posted on | August 11, 2012 | 3 Comments

Pipeline footprint. Source: BLM. Click to enlarge.

Thud. Eight years after Congress ordered that Las Vegas be given right-of-way across federal land for a 300-mile-long pipeline from Southern Nevada to the foot of the Great Basin National Park, the final environmental impact statement has been published. A reporter at High Country News puts the length of the document at 5,000 pages. Who knew that anyone would count the pages, much less read them? Give the man a raise.

The most likely permission to be granted when the Department of Interior certifies the report in October would allow urban siphons into four of five targeted valleys, but set aside questions of right-of-way into a contested basin on the Utah border. Utahns seem in no mood to sign a water-sharing agreement that they fear could leave them downwind of a 21st century dust source like Owens Valley.

Which begs a political tidbit: This Utahn upper hand in the trans-boundary chapters of the Vegas pipeline war is owed to former US Senator Bob Bennett, who in 2004 slipped a requirement for Utahn approval of water exports from any shared valleys into the bill that triggered the environmental study. In 2010, the Republican Bennett was replaced by Tea Party candidate Mike Lee. In the small world department, according to Lee’s website, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was Lee’s 6th grade LDS home teacher in Washington DC. Reid, D-Nevada, or as he is half-jokingly known, “the Senator from Las Vegas,” is one of the central architects and boosters of the pipeline scheme.

Faced with a political juggernaut driven by Senator Reid and fueled by Vegas dollars, opponents of the pipeline such as the Great Basin Water Network are encouraging objectors to write Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The Center for Biological Diversity has provided a web page where you can do it without a stamp.

Whatever one thinks about a snail here or desert fish there, no one should underestimate the threat posed by Las Vegas’s pipeline plan to an entire network over thousands of square miles of ancient oases for desert flora, fauna and migrating birds. The SNWA’s cynicism about the natural inhabitants of the Mojave and Great Basin deserts leaps out of the FEIS in odd moments, like this note about a spring reconnoitered by SNWA prospectors in Dry Lake Valley: “At the time of a field visit in June 2004, wildlife was the only observable water user.”  This, to SNWA, is a waste of water.

Geology of the White River, Lower Colorado and Death Valley groundwater flow system. Source: Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology. Click on the map for links to the original and accompanying reports from the USGS et al.

Should anyone bother reading the FEIS before Interior deems it done and dusted? It is an open secret that these things are written to get politicians with short attention spans to judge them by their weight, or even the length of their titles. But yes, the Bureau of Land Management worked hard on this report. Its staff caught incoming from every possible direction. And apart from the over-generosity of the SNWA with its own data and analyses, there are good pickings, among them Chapter 3, Section 3.

Here, plainly laid out in the water budget of the project, groundwater from three valleys relatively near to Las Vegas have negligible evaporative discharge to Joshua Trees and desert tortoises and are clearly identified as tributaries to the White River/Colorado River flow system. This system terminates in Lake Mead.  Yet a total of 22,861 acre feet per year from these basins was awarded earlier this year to the Las Vegas pipe by the Nevada state engineer. Behold links for the decisions on DelamarDry Lake and Cave valleys. 

The SNWA euphemism for this water is “instate resource.” There is nothing like a watershed that observes political boundaries — literally, nothing. Follow this logic and almost all of  the flow of the Colorado should never leave the upper basin states of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. It only seems fair that if the SNWA wants to sneak some Colorado River water from the river’s underground flow system before it reaches Mead, it should relinquish an appropriate part of its claim to Nevada’s surface water allocation. Anything else is casino accountancy.

On the subject of filching, will California please steal founding SNWA general manager Pat Mulroy from Las Vegas? Talent like hers should not be wasted masterminding water grabs, unless the water is in urban gutters. In Southern California, every year two to three times the total haul of water that the SNWA plans to vampirize from the Great Basin runs through storm drains as spill-over from lawn sprinklers and car washing. Nobody could capture it with the speed, flair and emphasis that Mulroy showed in lawn removal programs in Las Vegas. If anyone could lead Southern Californian cities to the kind of savings that they need to respect the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, comply with dry season run-off pollutant standards under the Clean Water Act, restore Owens Valley, stay within their Colorado River allocation and still plan for growth, it’s Mulroy. And think of the savings to civic coffers, starting with the $15bn that the SNWA pipeline would not cost Las Vegas homeowners and businesses.

 Updated 8/12/2012


3 Responses to “Is Vegas shortstopping Colorado River water?”

  1. Launce Rake
    August 12th, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

    It will be a terrible loss to Nevada, but we are willing to send Pat (and her triple-digit percentage water rate increases for churches, nonprofits and residents v. 2 percent increases for golf courses and casinos) to California as long as you agree to never, ever send her back.

  2. EmilyGreen
    August 12th, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

    Let me speak to my people.

  3. Steve Bloom
    August 12th, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

    Just keep her south of the Tehachapis. 🙂

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