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Thirsty Las Vegas Eyes a Refuge's Water

Hydrologists worry that tapping aquifer beneath a bighorn sanctuary could threaten rare wildlife.

June 21, 2004|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

DESERT NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Nev. -- Water is not what comes to mind in this sun-bleached landscape of crumpled mountains and creosote-coated basins. But that's what Las Vegas thinks of when it glances across its northern border at this sprawling bighorn sheep refuge, the largest federal wildlife sanctuary in the lower 48 states.

The city of water-themed casinos and ever-expanding subdivisions is looking here to begin a massive pumping project that would reach deep into rural Nevada to tap an ancient aquifer running from western Utah to Death Valley National Park in eastern California.

In Nevada's scrappy outback, the plans have prompted comparisons to Owens Valley, Los Angeles' infamous eastern Sierra water grab of a century ago.

Federal hydrologists worry that the first round of pumping, which if approved by the state engineer could be in operation by 2007, could starve springs on public lands. They are concerned not just for this place but for several other national wildlife refuges in southern Nevada that provide havens for endangered species found nowhere else in the world.

In Death Valley and surrounding Inyo County, Calif., officials believe the pumping could jeopardize water supplies. "There's no doubt the aquifer will be drawn down. It's a question of magnitude and where it will occur," said Death Valley hydrologist Terry Fisk. "In our view, the withdrawal of water ... could potentially harm our senior water rights."

The Southern Nevada Water Authority, the agency that manages the region's water supplies, insists the pumping will have minimal, if any, effect. If they're wrong, authority officials say, they'll turn off the offending pumps. "We've made a commitment if one of our wells causes environmental degradation, we'll shut it off," said Pat Mulroy, the agency's general manager.

The groundwater development is just one of several fronts her agency is pursuing as it hunts for more water for fast-growing Las Vegas, which gets most of its municipal supply from the fully claimed Colorado River, now in the grip of what some experts say might be the worst drought in 500 years.

The authority has obtained rights to divert water from the Virgin River northeast of Las Vegas, expressed interest in buying irrigation water from other states and lobbied the federal government for a bigger share of the Colorado. "Something has to give. Southern Nevada is the economic engine in the state of Nevada," said Mulroy, who is known in Southwestern water circles for her combative style.

In the last year, regional water demand dropped thanks to drought measures, reversing a more than decade-long trend when water use jumped from about 300,000 acre-feet to more than 500,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot. One acre-foot is enough to supply two average homes for a year.)

But every month, the Las Vegas metropolitan area continues to grow by another 3,000 to 4,000 people. The groundwater system that the authority is proposing to meet new demand would take a decade to fully develop and could eventually deliver enough water to supply more than 300,000 homes.

The Nevada congressional delegation introduced a bill last week that would grant the water authority pipeline rights of way across federal land.

The authority would like to start here, pumping enough water from beneath the 1.6-million-acre desert range and nearby basins to annually fill a 3-mile-high football stadium.

Established in 1936 to protect desert bighorn sheep, the refuge has the stark, unforgiving contours of a place where summer temperatures reach 117 degrees and annual rainfall averages 4 inches on the valley floors. More than three-fourths of it is pristine enough to have been recommended for inclusion in the federal wilderness system.

"We have some very serious concerns about the effect of withdrawing that much water," said Dick Birger, a veteran U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manager who oversees the desert refuge and three other much smaller refuges nearby. "Any creature that can live in the Mojave [Desert] is already on the ragged edge. There's no fat in survival in the Mojave."

At the other wildlife sanctuaries -- Moapa Valley, Ash Meadows and Pahranagat -- warm springs bubbling from the earth provide a home for remnant fish and aquatic life left over from prehistoric times, when Nevada was a place of lakes and plentiful water.

"The species we're talking about occur only here," said Cynthia Martinez, an assistant field supervisor for Fish and Wildlife in southern Nevada. "When the water's gone, they're gone. There's no place else to put them."

Refuge officials think spring flows at Moapa are already dropping because of nearby groundwater pumping started in the late 1990s by a local water district.

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