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Wrangling Over Water

Development dreams on the California-Nevada border could dry up and blow away without a reliable source of one of the West's most contested resources.

August 07, 2005|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

Developers say such concerns are premature, as they're still doing studies of flood dangers and water availability to determine how large their projects could be.

"We're not even mapping yet," said Steven Scow, a Las Vegas attorney who represents the family trust of former Clark County Dist. Atty. Roland H. Wiley, who died in 1993. The Wiley trust owns the bulk of private land in the Charleston View area, more than 10,000 acres, and has discussed building 40,000 to 50,000 homes there.

"That's our dream, our hope," Scow said. Las Vegas' explosive growth of nearly 7,000 new residents a month makes Charleston View, with its panoramic vistas of snow-capped Charleston Peak, a perfect site for a new city of commuters and retirees, he said.

There are 11 shallow water wells on the Wiley property, Scow said. But developers know they'll have to drill into a huge regional aquifer thousands of feet below to pull enough water to sustain a new city. "We know we have water," Scow said. "We just don't know how much."

Las Vegas building firm Rhodes Homes had hoped to find out in June, when it drilled a 1,540-foot test well that came up nearly dry. Rhodes then dropped its option to buy about 1,200 acres from the Wiley Trust and build 5,000 to 10,000 homes. But it's still looking for opportunities in the area, a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, a development firm based in the Philippines hopes to build 2,500 homes around a golf course on 2,100 acres, a representative said.

"We were the only ones planning anything out there," said Kelly Bradley, consultant for Golden Ridge Corp. "Now we're kind of like the tail on this huge elephant."

Golden Ridge's analysis shows that part of its property is suitable only for a golf course because of flooding. But the company can develop the rest if it can tap into the massive "carbonate aquifer" that stretches from western Utah through Nevada and into California, Bradley said.

"There's an aquifer with 21 million acre-feet of water 4,500 feet below us," Bradley said. He plans to spend $100,000 to drill a 3,500-foot test well by the end of August, he said. An acre-foot of water is enough to supply two average households for a year.

Greg James, former Inyo County Water Department director, said he thought developers would eventually find the deep aquifer beneath Pahrump Valley. "There will probably be enough water to meet their needs," he said. "The question is, what is the cost environmentally?"

James, now a consultant for the Nature Conservancy, which owns property in the area, said the deep aquifer could supply water for the hot springs in nearby Tecopa. It's also a potential source for the Amargosa River and for springs in Death Valley National Park, which has a southeast boundary just 20 miles from Charleston View.

Park Supt. J.T. Reynolds said he sees the Charleston View proposals in the same light as plans by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to pump groundwater in rural counties near federal park and wildlife preserves in Nevada. He fears these initiatives could dry up oases that keep desert plants and animals alive.

"This growth is just out of control," Reynolds said. "It's a nightmare on top of a nightmare. For those of us who live here and have a responsibility to protect these resources, it's heartbreaking."

Kay Brothers, deputy general manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the Las Vegas water wholesaler plans to pump only a small amount of water from wells 39 miles from the national park's Devil's Hole, a rock-bound pool where a unique species of purple pupfish has survived for 20,000 years.

"We found there would be no effect on Devil's Hole in 100 years," she said.

And if much larger authority wells in central and eastern Nevada draw down wells or springs, the state engineer requires the water agency to stop pumping, she said.

At the same time, Brothers said she sees the Charleston View proposals as "very dangerous," because developers would be drawing so much water from an already depleted basin.

Water law experts say Charleston View has the earmarks of a potential lawsuit if Inyo County approves large-scale development. Potential litigants include Nye County, Pahrump water users, the state of Nevada and federal agencies.

"If water is drawn down in areas we are monitoring, I can almost guarantee you these folks will be hearing from us in court," Reynolds said.

For its part, Nevada has twice rejected ambitious building plans on Wiley's Hidden Hills Ranch near Charleston View in Nevada, because the proposed hotel-casino and golf course would have harmed water users.

The state first refused to grant Wiley any water allocations, then in 1993 it rejected an application for a permit to pump water from his California holdings across the state line.

"Substantial evidence supports the state engineer's conclusion that the hydrological health of the Pahrump Basin constitutes an important state interest," the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in 1998, rejecting an appeal by the Wiley estate.

Water law expert Roderick Walston, former U.S. Interior Department acting solicitor and a longtime deputy attorney general in California, said groundwater disputes are increasingly common among states, as residents on each side of a border lay claim to the same asset.

"That is especially true in cases where there is a groundwater basin underlying two states," he said. "Then the two states duke it out in the [U.S.] Supreme Court."

Officials in Nye County said there's no question construction of a large Charleston View project about 20 miles away would harm local residents, nearly all of whom have their own water wells.

"What kind of idea is this?" said Michael Maher, the county manager. "Is this just merely to get somebody worried, or get into a fight? In the West, whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting. So, OK, is somebody wanting to get into a fight here?"

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