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Water war heats up

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 mecca booming.

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 it's going."

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 the valleys.

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 proposed pipeline.

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 nation.

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 growing.

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."

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