Western Water Wars

Las Vegas eyes rural Nevada's aquifers, triggering a debate about the future of this arid region

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The valley below Nevada's Snake mountains should not have much to fear from Las Vegas. Its dun-colored terrain daubed with the green of shrubs, meadow grasses and crops lies some 200 miles north of the roaring, metastasizing metropolis for which the state is most famous. But the 1.7 million people of greater Las Vegas may have designs on the fewer than 1,000 people of Snake Valley--or rather, on their water.

As one of the fastest-growing population centers in the country, Las Vegas has a powerful thirst. Every month 5,000 to 7,000 newcomers arrive to retire or find jobs, meaning the already swollen population could double in 20 to 30 years. Though water-conservation measures have reduced the city's annual consumption since 2002, they cannot contain such explosive growth. So Las Vegas has gone looking for its water farther from home.

The city started to move last year on earlier filings for groundwater rights in Clark, Lincoln and White Pine counties, setting off a water war that could be repeated across the parched but popular Southwest. Let the Las Vegans have their way, other Nevadans warn, and you could upset a complex web of aquifers that run as far away as California's Death Valley and western Utah, where Snake Valley partly lies. That could do irreversible damage to plant, wildlife and human populations all sipping from the same limited supply. For every desert population center, there is a similarly limited supply of water and a similar potential for political warfare.

"There could be no more confrontational words [in this part of the country]," says Cecil Gardner, a rancher on the Utah side of the valley, "than 'We're going to take your water.'" But there should be ample water to go around, counters a composed Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, adding, "Where else exactly would they like us to go?"

That Las Vegas has real water woes can't be denied. The city exceeded the capacity of its own groundwater field several decades ago, and currently is 90% dependent on a limited allotment from the Colorado River--an allotment it's fast outgrowing. That is what has driven the city to petition for water rights in the outlying counties, but if the history of Western development has shown one thing, it's that this kind of water shopping can go terribly awry. In the early part of the 20th century, Los Angeles famously--and secretly--bought up thousands of acres in California's Owens Valley, then proceeded to drain away the surface and subsurface water. After decades of pumping, a dozen Owens Valley springs have dried up, and water tables in places are too low to support once abundant native grasses and shrubs. In the West that has become a cautionary tale. "We don't want to be another Owens Valley," says Denys Koyle, owner of the Border Inn, on the Nevada-Utah line.

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