CARSON CITY, Nev. -- Central
Nevada farmers like Roderick McKenzie fear booming Las
Vegas is going to suck them dry. They're fighting a
plan to pump billions of gallons of water south across
the desert, saying it would eat up groundwater
supplies and could spell the end for ranchers and
farmers in rural valleys.
With one ruling in hand for billions of gallons of
rural Nevada water, the water supplier for sprawling
southern Nevada is pressing for billions of additional
gallons a year -- in a move that pits farmers and
ranchers against developers eager to keep the gambling
The Southern Nevada Water Authority wants to draw more
than 11.3 billion gallons of groundwater a year from
the Delamar, Dry Lake and Cave valleys, all in central
Lincoln County and along the route of a proposed water
pipeline that like a giant straw will stretch 250
miles across the state.
That amount of water, expanded through reuse and other
means, could supply more than 100,000 homes in the
fast-growing Las Vegas area. But critics fear the plan
would dry up groundwater supplies and could spell the
end for ranching and farming in the rural valleys.
McKenzie, who heads the Lund Irrigation & Water Co.,
says he's particularly worried about proposed pumping
in Cave Valley because ranchers in his company run
cattle there in the summer and fall -- and depend on
springs that could be dried up.
"It's not a smart thing to let the state engineer go
into a valley and take water that's probably going
somewhere else," McKenzie said. "Once the water table
starts to drop it will continue to drop."
McKenzie, whose family has farmed in and around Lund
for more than a century, said water under nearby Cave
Valley could be linked to the subsurface water in the
Lund area and a big drawdown of water in one area
could hurt the other.
"That's the whole basis of our protest," he said.
"It's not knowing where the (underground) water is
coming from in the first place, and not knowing where
Lincoln County is going along
with the plan, which is part of a $2 billion water
pipeline project to tap into water around Nevada. The
state's share of the Colorado River can't sustain
continued growth around Las Vegas, home to about three
of every four Nevada residents, and drought has
further strained water supplied by the river.
"This is very important because it's a critical part
of our overall groundwater project," said water
authority spokesman J.C. Davis, adding that Lincoln
County's support will help during the state engineer's
hearings on the plan. A prehearing conference has been
set for Aug. 28 by the state engineer and the water
authority has asked for Jan. 14-18 hearings.
Davis said the pumping will only take the amount of
groundwater that is naturally replenished each year in
But there are many opponents -- including the federal
Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Ranchers and other landowners within the valleys who
are protesting the plan are getting support from
groups such as the Western Environmental Law Center,
Great Basin Water Network and the Progressive
Leadership Alliance of Nevada, among others.
The water authority's theory on available groundwater
is challenged by Susan Lynn of the Great Basin Water
Network, who said the water "recharge" in the area
isn't substantial and the pumping will dry up springs
there and in adjacent areas.
"They don't call it Dry Lake Valley for nothing," Lynn
said. "This is just simply mining of water. Once it's
gone, it's gone."
Tom Myers, a consulting hydrologist for the Great
Basin Water Network, said the water authority is
asking for several times the amount of water that's
available, according to data compiled previously by
the state engineer's office.
"The availability of water in these basins is highly
suspect," added Bob Fulkerson of the Progressive
Leadership Alliance of Nevada. "It's a desert, with
barely water enough for the farmers and ranchers whose
lives depend on it."
"SNWA could turn this vast area into a national
sacrifice zone for the sake of unchecked growth in Las
Vegas," Fulkerson said.
Lincoln County had opposed the water-pumping plan, but
reached an agreement with the water authority in 2003
that states which groundwater basins each can
developed in the county north of Las Vegas. The
agreement also allows for use of the pipeline, for a
price, by the county.
In April, state Engineer Tracy Taylor granted the
water authority the right to pump at least 13 billion
gallons of groundwater a year from Spring Valley,
located in White Pine County at the north end of the
The Spring Valley amount approved for the first 10
years of pumping was less than half what the water
authority asked for, but could be increased if there
are no adverse effects from the initial pumping.
The water authority's eventual goal is to tap into
enough water in rural Nevada to serve more than
230,000 homes, in addition to about 400,000 households
already getting the agency's water in the Las Vegas
area, one of the fastest growing regions in the
The agency, feeling the effects of a seven-year
drought on the Colorado River from which it gets 90
percent of its water, hopes to begin delivering the
rural groundwater to Las Vegas by 2015.
The project is being supported by casino executives,
developers, union representatives and others who point
to water conservation efforts in the Las Vegas area
and who warn of an economic downturn affecting the
entire state unless the city has enough water to keep
Economic analyst Jeremy Aguero said an inadequate
water supply would have wide-ranging consequences,
including a slowdown in investments and construction,
reduced public services and other problems that could
ripple across Nevada.
"We're already seeing some slowdowns with development
in southern Nevada, but it's still a situation of
normal ups and downs," Aguero said. "Imagine a
situation in which developers believed tomorrow
couldn't be a better day because development would be
stalled by insufficient water resources. The impacts
would be exponentially worse."
Critics have likened the water authority's proposal to
a Los Angeles water grab that parched California's
once-fertile Owens Valley, while the water authority
contends there's no way a repeat of that early-1900s
water grab could occur.
The events surrounding the Owens Valley, about 250
miles north of Los Angeles, go back to 1913, when an
aqueduct was built to bring water to Los Angeles'
fast-growing San Fernando Valley. The events were
fictionalized in the 1974 movie "Chinatown."