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Las Vegas Thirsts for More Water

The fast-growing city may tap rivers and groundwater from outlying counties, to the dismay of some rural residents.

March 07, 2004|Ken Ritter | Associated Press Writer

LAS VEGAS — After nearly two decades of busily converting desert into sprawling metropolis in the fastest-growing region in the nation, southern Nevada finds itself beset by a four-year drought and straining against limits in the water that it can pump from nearby Lake Mead.

Las Vegas is turning to rural counties to the north to quench a thirst that the nation's largest man-made reservoir can't sustain. Plans include drilling wells and building a $1-billion pipeline to tap rivers and groundwater from neighboring rural counties.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority says there is enough water out there to let the population of the Las Vegas area nearly double in the next decade -- to more than 3 million -- without drawing more from the Colorado River, which supplies Lake Mead.

But some at the head of the proposed pipeline worry that their high desert valleys and ranches will dry up if precious underground water is pumped to Las Vegas. They say the obvious solution is being ignored.

"You have growth in an area that doesn't have water and the decisions aren't how to control growth, it's how to get water," said Paul Johnson, chairman of the White Pine County Commission in Ely, 250 miles north of the Las Vegas Strip.

Farrel Lytle, who lives in Eagle Valley -- an enclave of about 30 homes, a trailer park and a bar near Pioche -- is worried that his community will go the way of California's Owens River Valley.

"That country dried up. It lost its water to a big city," Lytle said.

Johnson too sees parallels in the early 1900s Los Angeles water project that drained a valley about 200 miles north of Los Angeles and turned Owens Lake into a dust bowl. The 1974 film "Chinatown" was loosely based on the episode.

"All of these preceding disasters are examples that people use when they talk about transferring water," Johnson said.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority last year settled a 1989 water rights claim that it staked across vast stretches of Lincoln County, and is negotiating with White Pine County, the next county to the north.

White Pine's five-member commission suspended talks last month to address community opposition to water-sharing.

"The community is very divided on how to deal with this," Johnson said.

He acknowledged that 8,800 people living in a rural county the size of Massachusetts may be no match for business and political interests in Clark County -- which includes Las Vegas and 1.6 million of the state's 2.3 million residents.

"We're trying to save our water," said Gary Lane, a truck-stop owner, cattle rancher and alfalfa farmer outside the White Pine community of Lund, 210 miles from Las Vegas. "We're looking at our pumps and our springs running dry if the water is pumped out."

No one really knows how much water exists beneath the desert. State Engineer Hugh Ricci estimates that there are millions of acre-feet.

"The question is, where can you get it and how much can you get?" Ricci said.

Water officials say they'll need to drill test wells to determine whether the supply is finite ancient water trapped underground, or is replenished by springs and scarce surface precipitation.

In 2003, Nevada led the nation in population growth for the 17th year, according to the state demographer. About 80% of new residents moved to Las Vegas or nearby.

The Lake Mead reservoir behind Hoover Dam is at its lowest level in 35 years, at 1,140 feet above sea level and 65 feet below its high-water mark. It is still more than half full, with about 5 trillion gallons of water.

A growth study delivered to the Southern Nevada Water Authority on Feb. 26 did not refer directly to water. But it came the same day that the authority received a report on plans to reach far to the north to meet future demands.

One project calls for tapping groundwater in northern Clark County by 2007.

Another would draw water from the Virgin and Muddy rivers before they empty into one end of Lake Mead. The third would extend the pipeline north to Lincoln and White Pine counties.

The growth study, by Las Vegas-based Hobbs Ong & Associates, was commissioned to determine whether growth control would work as a means of drought management, and to provide an answer to other states relying on the Colorado River that wonder why southern Nevada won't stop growing.

It said the economies of southern Nevada and the rest of the state depend on continued growth, as well as on gambling, tourism and mining. Turn it off and the entire state would suffer, it concluded.

The report made a case for growth that the construction industry in southern Nevada wanted to make, said Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.

"It was 'Maximum water for maximum development,' and 'We need Congress to do it,' " he said.

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