Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Vegas Water Plan Gives Critics Deja Vu (The Salt Lake Tribune 090606)

Vegas water plan gives critics déjà vu
Includes Utah sources: They fear the city will share L.A.'s insatiable 20th-century thirst
By Joe Baird
The Salt Lake Tribune

BAKER, Nev. - Greg James knows a little bit about the politics of water. And he says he has heard this pitch before:

Officials from a large, well-financed and hugely influential government agency propose a massive water project in a sparsely populated desert valley. They promise to be good neighbors while taking only what they need to quench the thirst of their rapidly growing urban population. And they warn, in the most dire terms, that a water crisis looms if their plan isn't implemented.

That represents the guts of the case being made by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to tap groundwater resources in eastern Nevada's arid valleys - including some that sit underneath Utah's west desert - and ship it 200 miles south to Las Vegas via a pipeline network.

But James, an attorney from eastern California's Owens Valley, and the former water department director for Inyo County, warned area residents and visiting legislators here last week to be skeptical of such claims.

The Southern Nevada proposal, he says, has been taken from the same basic sales blueprint Los Angeles officials used nearly a century ago to wrest water from his community, with disastrous consequences.

"There are a lot of parallels here," James said. "In the '20s and '30s, William Mulholland [the Los Angeles water superintendent] was also saying 'Don't worry.' Los Angeles assured Owens Valley residents that there was plenty of water.

"They came to take only a little," he continued. "But as the city continued to grow, they couldn't stop themselves."

Los Angeles originally sought only surface water from the Owens Valley - primarily in the form of snowmelt from the adjacent Sierra Nevada range. And the city's original proposal called for taking water only from half of the valley. But as Los Angeles grew, so did the scope of the water grab. The city began buying up more property and water rights, and by the 1930s owned nearly all of the valley's farm and ranch lands.

Environmentally, Owens Valley has never been the same. Fifty miles of the lower Owens River dried up in 1924, about a decade after the construction of the first aquifer in 1913. Water diversions killed off Owens Lake in the ensuing years. And the construction of a second aqueduct and groundwater pumping parched the valley's springs, seeps and meadows by the 1970s. Only the passage of California environmental laws and lawsuits that took decades to resolve halted the pillaging.
Today, the county and Los Angeles have a joint water-management agreement. Some water resources have been restored and groundwater supplies have been stabilized. But what was once a largely agricultural valley is now known more for its dust problems.

There's a lesson here, says James, a 30-year resident of Owens Valley, especially now with the Southern Nevada Water Authority buying up ranch properties in the region in a bid to expand its hold on water rights. The water authority began staking claims in 1989.

"Las Vegas is telling you to trust them," he told residents of the Snake Valley, which straddles the Utah-Nevada border. "But when you go to Owens Valley, you can see what happens when big cities own ranches. There's not much ranching going on."

While not disputing what occurred in Owens Valley, Southern Nevada officials dismiss attempts to link their proposed groundwater project to what Los Angeles did decades ago.

"In 1913 there wasn't a [National Environmental and Policy Act] and there wasn't an [Endangered Species Act] and there weren't any water laws in California that offered any protection," said Kay Brothers, the water authority's deputy general manager. "The Owens Valley mantra is those dry river and lake beds and what happens when surface water is taken out. But we're not taking any surface water. This is apples and oranges."

The Southern Nevada Water Authority proposal calls for the removal of about 180,000 acre-feet of groundwater annually. About 91,000 acre-feet would come from Spring Valley, where the LDS Church owns a large cattle ranch and has expressed concerns about the project. Another 25,000 acre-feet would come from Snake Valley. The project is vitally necessary, water authority officials argue, because Las Vegas is less than a decade away from reaching the limits of its current water resources.

Because 70 percent of the Snake Valley aquifer lies on the Utah side of the line - Nevada accounts for about 60 percent of the groundwater recharge - Utah water officials must sign off on the Southern Nevada project before it is approved.

The two states are close to finalizing a water-sharing agreement. But that deal will precede the completion of a U.S. Geological Survey study of the region's groundwater resources. And that is where much of the contention lies. Area ranchers and environmental groups want the Nevada state engineer to withhold approval of the project until after the USGS study is complete.

The state engineer will begin hearings on the Southern Nevada Water Authority's permit application next week.

"If they build that pipeline, they'll take the water, and they'll keep on taking more and more water because they have the money," said Cecil Garland, a rancher from Callao, on the Utah side of the line. "And if that happens, you're going to have a bunch of dead valleys."

Brothers, the water authority's deputy general manager, insists that won't happen. Continual monitoring of groundwater wells, and regular rotations of the wells, she maintains, will prevent the groundwater tables from becoming depleted.

"To say we're going to dry everything up is just not true. That's just not what's going to occur," Brothers said.

James, however, urged area residents and political leaders to be vigilant. Don't wait until it's too late.

"You have a lot of challenges," he said. "Use the power of that Utah-Nevada agreement. Get the studies done. Demand automatic triggers [stopping water withdrawals] so you're not arguing while water is being drawn down. Define what you'll accept. You can't afford to be unsure about this."

Having lived in the Owens Valley I got to see first hand how Los Angeles Department of Water & Power Turned the Upper Owens Valley into a Desert Community first. The Ground water used to feed the grass in some of the Pasture Lands and in the Winter all the way to the middle of June then by Sept. they would get wet or moist again, however the ground water pumping that DWP did Pulled that Water down to a level below that which there was a varying height each year. The Pasture would stay dry all year instead of feeding the reeds that we used to make our forts with, and Ironically that is what the Indians of the area used to make their huts to live in was the same type reed witch needs moist almost muddy ground to grow in. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is and Has changed the Valley forever!!

No comments: