Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
A 21st Century “Chinatown” – Reid Holds a Royal Flush for Las Vegas Water Supplies

A fascinating article in the February issue of Portfolio magazine, detailing Harry Reid’s — the Democrats’ United States Senate leader — support of developers and pit miners in his home state of Nevada, where runaway growth portends a ruinous water crisis and a threatened desert ecosystem. In a story that conjures up memories of Los Angeles’ water battles in the early 20th century, this is an issue involving federal government lawmakers, state and local municipalities, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and even the Mormon Church. As the piece notes:

“…In a city running out of water, massive housing projects rise in clouds of dust on the outer reaches of the Las Vegas Valley like stucco ramparts built by some demented desert king. Just over the hills to the east, Lake Mead, which is on the Colorado River, the area’s main water source, is literally drying up. Runaway population growth and a historic drought have rendered the nation’s largest reservoir a virtual drainage ditch, down to a skeletal 48 percent of capacity. Yet construction in Las Vegas continues unabated. The city’s latest megaproject is a master-planned “sustainable community” of 16,000 homes—anchored by a high-rise “neighborhood” casino—to be built about 15 miles northwest of the Las Vegas Strip, at the gateway to beloved Mount Charleston, part of the region’s only national forest.The method to this head-in-the-sand madness has its roots in faraway Washington, D.C., in a plan quietly aided by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In 2004, with the water level at Lake Mead plummeting and panic setting in that Las Vegas might actually need to curtail its blistering growth, Nevada’s senior senator helped to push through a reprieve. He co-sponsored a law granting the Southern Nevada Water Authority a free right-of-way on federal land to pipe groundwater into Las Vegas from central Nevada, hundreds of miles away. The $3 billion plumbing plan would tap the Great Basin aquifer, a vast underground sink that runs from Death Valley, in California, across central Nevada and into western Utah. Think Muammar Qaddafi and his Great Man-Made River Project in the Libyan Sahara, or Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, the 1974 film based on what happened when a similarly thirsty Los Angeles turned California’s Owens Valley into a dust bowl a century ago. As the Great Basin’s groundwater is drained, desert springs and seeps will dry up, endemic plants and wildlife will die off, and farms and ranches will wither away, according to several scientists who have studied the plan. Eventually, the aquifer, which took millennia to fill, will run out, like other Nevada mother lodes mined into oblivion. What then for Las Vegas, whose civic boosters won’t accept that the driest desert in North America isn’t the best place for another million people in addition to the nearly 2 million already there?…”

“…Indeed, some environmentalists worry that what’s happening in Las Vegas can be seen as a harbinger of looming water crises in many fast-growing areas across the country. “The decision to pursue this kind of water transfer is, in part, a decision to avoid a debate about urban growth that cities like Las Vegas need to have,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, in Oakland, California. The think tank recently co-authored a study that found that Las Vegas, through more conservation, could save nearly as much water as it plans to take from central Nevada. “How fair is it to look for more and more water, farther and farther afield, when we’re using the water we have improperly?” Gleick asks….”

“…A few hundred miles north of Coyote Springs, Snake Valley slopes gradually into Utah, winding through spare and beautiful land-vast, irrigated farmscapes in green circles etched out of the scrub desert, studded by the time-sanded peaks of the southern Snake Mountains. Studies by Utah geologists show Southern Nevada’s pumps could permanently alter groundwater flow throughout the eastern Great Basin, depleting the water table for 60 miles inside Utah. Lawmakers there have asked the government to perform a detailed study of the potential impact of pumping before the pipeline proceeds. But Reid is refusing to allocate money for a study, saying the U.S. Geological Survey has already examined the area’s water supply….”

“…This water battle is the toughest fight I’ve had,” says Garland, over beef stew in his ranch house, in a grove of cottonwood and silver maple trees. Outside, a Confederate flag dangles from a pole; Garland, who was raised in North Carolina, calls himself an unreconstructed Southerner. He vents about President Lincoln but also about today’s environmentalists, whose “sole purpose,” he claims, is to perpetuate their own power by raising more and more money from donors. “I’ve been telling my people, ‘When Harry Reid speaks, I see no reason for us to tremble,’” he says. Garland believes they’ve lined up help from a commanding source—the Mormon Church, whose opposition to the MX missile project in the early 1980s was instrumental in killing it. The church owns several thousand acres of ranchland in eastern Nevada, where it grows food for various programs. The groundwater fight presents a difficult issue for the Mormon leadership in Salt Lake City. In addition to Reid and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, thousands of other members of the church live on both sides of the Nevada-Utah border, and a large flock resides in Las Vegas. In a 2006 letter to Nevada’s state water engineer, the church defended its water rights against Southern Nevada’s encroachment. “They’re the only ones I know who can stand eyeball to eyeball, toe-to-toe with Harry Reid and the Southern Nevada Water Authority,” Garland says….”




This entry was posted on Thursday, January 24th, 2008 at 8:09 am and is filed under Colorado River, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

Comments are closed.

© 2022 Water Politics LLC.  'Water Politics', 'water. politics. life', and 'Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty World' are service marks of Water Politics LLC.