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Dust Up

Environment: Las Vegas water grab on hold as studies probe what pumping groundwater will do to Salt Lake City’s air.



Utah Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, wanted to know why his colleagues in the Legislature were worried about a little dust. Up for debate in the 2009 Legislature was a proposal to study the impacts of Las Vegas’ plans for pumping groundwater out from under the Utah-Nevada border, including whether pumping would create a dust bowl and pollute skies in Salt Lake City. Noel didn’t want Utah giving environmentalists ammunition for clean-air court cases, but supported the study.

“If you dried up all the [water], killed all the wildlife, kicked the ranchers off the ground … what the heck difference does it make if a little dust is blowing around up there?” Noel asked of Vegas’ plan to sink wells on the border and transport water south to Sin City through a 300-mile-long pipeline.

“A little” dust might not be a big deal, but the idea of all of the topsoil of a great swath of Utah’s west desert blowing on the wind to the Wasatch Front scares the death out of some doctors. In March 2009, 147 scientists and medical doctors wrote Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., R-Utah, and Gov. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., objecting to the Las Vegas pumping plans that are currently the subject of negotiation between the two governors’ offices.

Dr. Chris Cowley, president of the Utah Medical Association and one of the letter’s signatories, says Utah doctors estimate 200,000 Wasatch Front residents die every year from the longterm effects of breathing air pollution.

Doctors worry that number could grow if Las Vegas is granted pumping rights and the water level beneath Utah’s west desert drops, causing the plants that hold the desert together to die. “We’re downwind,” he notes.

The letter from the doctors and scientists is the latest example of building opposition to Las Vegas-pipeline plans that for the first time, has some Utah activists optimistic that fighting deep-pocketed Sin City isn’t a lost cause. Arrayed against the pipeline are Utah ranchers who grow crops in Snake Valley straddling the Utah-Nevada border, activists in Utah and Nevada joined as the Great Basin Water Network and several Utah counties—including Utah County and Salt Lake County—that fear dust blowing into the Wasatch Front.

Until recently, it seemed pipeline opponents were losing. Nevada’s state engineer has not yet made a decision on Las Vegas’ request for water in statecrossing Snake Valley. But in 2008, Las Vegas’ water supplier was granted rights to pull water from three eastern Nevada agricultural valleys for its proposed pipeline. During those Nevada valley water hearings, federal agencies responsible for area fish, grazing land, a national park, and American Indian tribes dropped their protests in favor of negotiated agreements. Utah pipelinefighting groups feared hearings on Snake Valley, scheduled for September 2009, would go the same way. But the tables may now be turning.

During the last week of March, the federal Interior Department announced it wouldn’t be negotiating a settlement of the Snake Valley hearings. Simeon Herskovits, a Taos, N.M., attorney representing pipeline opponents, says it was the unique threat of pumping in Snake Valley that likely changed the fed’s mind. Herskovits works with several area Goshute bands that fear effects of the pipeline. He said those tribes have made it clear to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs they won’t be a party to a stipulated agreement.

Additionally, the National Parks Service runs Great Basin National Park next door to Snake Valley. Studies by park scientists predict pipeline pumping in the valley could drain springs in the national park. One study found that pumping at levels proposed by Las Vegas would drop the water under Snake Valley below the roots of the deepest-rooted west-desert plants that hold the desert soil in place. Thos estudies have never been presented at pipeline hearings because of the negotiated settlements.

One week after federal agencies announced their intentions to participate in the September Snake Valley water hearings, Vegas’ water supplier, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, asked for a year’s delay. J.C. Davis, water-authority spokesman, says more time is needed to develop a groundwater-pumping model that federal agencies have requested to predict potential impacts of the pipeline.

Susan Lynn, coordinator of pipeline opponent Great Basin Water Network, suspects Nevada water authorities want more time because the agency’s groundwater pumping studies are showing negative impacts on Snake Valley and its ranchers. Davis denies that. The Great Basin Water Network and Utah’s west-desert ranchers plan to respond to the requested delay by asking the Nevada State Engineer to deny Las Vegas’ Snake Valley water applications outright. Herskovits says the Vegas water authority has had plenty of time to put its case together—it filed for the pipeline water rights in 1989. He says the delay request is a wellworn water authority tactic trotted out whenever opposition to the pipeline heats up. The attorney fears the delay, if granted, will be used to lobby federal politicians to force federal agencies back to the negotiation table.

Brad Winn has similar fears. He’s the Republican Utah lawmaker who sponsored this year’s legislation to create the new Snake Valley research team. On the one hand, Winn, who represents westdesert ranchers, says a delay could give Utah’s new study group time to provide scientific evidence to groups fighting the pipeline. On the other hand, he worries a delay could mean the governors of Utah and Nevada will negotiate a watersharing deal before the scientists have a chance to present their cases.

But Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said the requested delay “takes a lot of pressure off of the agreement” and likely will give Utah an additional year to collect scientific information from a series of test wells in Snake Valley.

Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesman Davis says the opposition from Utah is misplaced. He says Las Vegas is sensitive to Utah’s concerns for ranchers and the environment, but adds the water belongs to Nevada.

“I understand the vilification of Las Vegas is great sport,” Davis says. “But the fact is all we have done is to ask our state engineer to use water the state engineer, not us, has said is available.”

Davis says the water authority is certain water can be taken from Snake Valley without the devastating effects predicted by pipeline opponents. And if the water table drops too low for the deep-rooted desert plants that currently reach up to 10 feet underground to find a drink, new, short-rooted plants will take over and keep the desert from blowing to Salt Lake City, he says. Dr. Cowley, who wrote to Huntsman last month, says that’s wishful thinking.

He says just look at California’s Owens Valley, a one-time agricultural land drained to slake the thirst of Los Angeles.

“The dust off the valley is now the single largest source of particulate air pollution in the country,” he says. “Our concern is the same thing could happen here.”