The skyline vanished. Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality declared a “red” air day for Salt Lake, Weber and Davis counties. It was the second such warning in a week.
The culprit of the spring whiteout wasn’t pollution from the Wasatch Front’s infamous winter inversions. It wasn’t summer ozone smog caused by sun-baked car exhaust. The gunk in the air in late April was dust swept from the desert floor 100 miles to the west of Salt Lake Valley and blown in by high winds.
A similar event had happened one year before. A dust storm invaded the Wasatch Front following west-desert wildfires in summer 2007. For Salt Lake County officials, the dust has literally brought close to home what is at stake in a fight between Las Vegas and west desert Utah ranchers over water. It may be about preserving crops for tiny Millard County. But politicians in Wasatch Front cities fear if Las Vegas sucks the remaining water from the desert, the desert will move to Salt Lake skies.
Now Salt Lake County and Utah County are joining the fight to keep Las Vegas from siphoning the area’s underground water and piping it to Las Vegas.
On July 2, lawyers for the Utah Association of Counties cited threats to Wasatch Front air quality in findings with Nevada’s state engineer, arguing that Salt Lake County and Utah County should be allowed to join Millard County in fighting what opponents are calling the Las Vegas “water grab.” Las Vegas water authorities struck back, filing paperwork to keep the two metropolitan counties out of the fight.
The issue will likely be decided by Nevada’s state engineer prior to a July 15 meeting in Carson City. At that meeting Las Vegas’ water supplier, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, will begin making its argument for taking enough water out of the Snake Valley—which straddles the Utah-Nevada border—to slake the thirst of 170,000 homes 250 miles away in Las Vegas.
“We’re downwind,” says Salt Lake County Councilman Jim Bradley who brought the issue to fellow council members in June. “I think there is a good chance that taking water out of the Snake Valley over there is going to have an air-quality detriment to Salt Lake County.”
Ann Ober, environmental policy coordinator for Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, says Salt Lake Valley shares an air corridor with the Snake Valley in Utah’s west desert. “If they de-water the Snake Valley, we can expect an increase in particulate matter that will impact the valley’s air quality,” she says. In addition to participation in Nevada’s water hearings, Ober says Salt Lake County has petitioned for a seat at the table as federal officials work on an environmental impact statement for the Las Vegas pumping plan.
Salt Lake County and Utah County each are asking to bring experts to testify at the July hearings, held by the Nevada State Engineer. After the hearings the engineer will decide how much, if any, water Las Vegas gets to take from Snake Valley. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has filed on 16 billion gallons per year.
Snake Valley’s ranchers have complained for years about the plan, saying when Nevada sticks pipes on its side of the border, water will be sucked from under Utah crops. Southern Nevada Water Authority’s response has been that there is plenty of water to go around. The authority acknowledges its pumping might drop the Utah water table, but says Utah’s ranchers will just have to drill deeper wells.
That argument doesn’t hold water, says Mark Ward, an attorney with the Utah Association of Counties, which will represent Salt Lake County in the Nevada hearings.
A Utah state scientist has estimated pumping in the Snake Valley could drop underground water levels by 10 feet, below the root system of the greasewood scrub brush that holds the desert floor together.
“The groundwater dependant vegetation loss could be vast,” says Ward, noting that, from the 1900s to the 1970s, when Los Angeles pumped water away from surrounding ranching valleys in California, the result was the largest dust source in the world.
If allowed, the Salt Lake and Utah counties’ entry into the battle will be a boon for little-populated Millard County, whose county commissioners have complained about fighting the deep-pockets of Las Vegas water authority alone.
And there may be more help on the way. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. hasn’t been publicly heard from on the issue of Snake Valley. But the governor’s office recently granted permission for Salt Lake County to call Utah state scientists to testify at the Snake Valley hearings.
To have been assured of a seat at the negotiating table, Salt Lake County would have needed to file its protest in 1989 when Las Vegas first laid claim to the water on its border with Utah. But Utah didn’t know then what it thinks it knows now, Ward says: That all the underground water from eastern Nevada to the Great Salt Lake is one big system and pumping at one end impacts everyone.
“We need a comprehensive state policy,” says Ward. “If we don’t hang together, our ground water will be slowly siphoned away.”