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NEVADA GROUNDWATER CONSERVATION

THE PROBLEM

Nevada is the driest state in the nation, with average annual precipitation at just more than nine inches. Coupled with a scarcity of permanent rivers and lakes and only a meager allocation of Colorado River water, this lack of precipitation makes water the most precious and controversial resource in Nevada. And the situation will only be exacerbated by climate change, which is predicted to result in a hotter and even drier state.

However, the answer is not to pump lavish amounts of the state’s precious groundwater, as the Southern Nevada Water Authority — the water agency for Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas — proposes to do. In fact, the agency is pushing to pump around 160,000 acre-feet — more than 52.2 billion gallons — of water each year from eastern Nevada, sending it through 300 miles of pipeline to support the Las Vegas area's uncontrolled growth. The cost is currently estimated in excess of $3.5 billion.

The Water Authority claims it can permanently remove the water from eastern Nevada's desert valleys without any harm to people or to wildlife. But work by independent hydrologists and biologists shows it may not be possible to pump and export so much water without causing major environmental degradation and destroying the livelihoods of rural residents in eastern Nevada and western Utah. The area targeted for the massive pumping proposal is home to national wildlife refuges in Nevada and Utah; important state wildlife-management areas; American Indian communities; and dozens of small, rural agricultural communities that have been living in balance with the limited water supplies of the region for more than a century. Great Basin National Park is surrounded by the proposed groundwater pump and export project, which would bring 200 or more wells with power lines, roads and linked buried pipelines to cover the valleys on both sides of the park — some right on its border. Communities like Baker, Nevada, would have large production wells in their backyards, sending local water to a city 300 miles away.

The impacts of this project would be devastating to spring and aquatic species such as a number of endemic springsnails; desert fish like the Moapa dace, White River springfish, relict dace and Bonneville cutthroat trout; and riparian species such as the southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo. Upland species including pronghorn antelope, sage grouse, bighorn sheep and rare plants would also be hurt by the lowering of the water table and effects on vegetation. 

OUR CAMPAIGN

The Center is fighting this water grab on two fronts. On the state front, we’re combating authorization of the right to pump the groundwater, which is given by the Nevada state engineer. On the federal front, we’re opposing the authorization of a right-of-way permit for the pipeline’s construction, which is given by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

In the state process, the Center (through the Great Basin Water Network) won a decision before the Nevada Supreme Court overturning water rights previously granted to the Southern Nevada Water Authority on the basis of lack of due process for those who had raised concerns. As a result, water-rights applications had to be re-filed for consideration by the state engineer, and the Center has already protested 130 of them. In March 2012, the state engineer granted the Water Authority less than half the requested amount of groundwater from four central Nevada basins, with more to be granted if test pumping showed no negative impacts. The Center and our allies in the Great Basin Water Network believe that even this amount is unsustainable and would lead to catastrophic environmental harm — so we appealed the decision in April 2012.

On the federal level, in 2005 the Bureau of Land Management issued a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement to decide whether to approve the proposed pipeline. Due to heavy conflict among specialists and cooperating agencies, the draft statement wasn’t released until summer 2011. The Center, working with partners in the Great Basin Water Network, submitted critical, scientifically based comments daylighting the extreme damage that would occur from the pumping. For example, more than 190,000 acres of Great Basin shrublands would be dried up and converted to grasslands filled with invasive weed species; more than 8,000 acres of wetlands would disappear; and up to 300 springs and nearly 200 miles of streams dried up or significantly affected. Twenty-five species of rare and imperiled springsnails, recently petitioned for by the Center, would be harmed, along with more than a dozen species of imperiled desert fish, including the Moapa dace and least chub. The greater sage grouse, a species found to be warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act and also covered in the Center’s landmark 757-species settlement agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service, would lose more than 280,000 acres of nesting and brood-rearing habitat, while more common mule deer, elk and pronghorn would likewise lose hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat.

A final environmental impact statement and record of decision was set for the early summer of 2012.

 

 

Photo by Rob Mrowka