Rancher in middle of water feud

By HENRY BREAN

For ASSOCIATED PRESS

Published: Saturday, May 25 2013 11:33 p.m. MDT

Water flows from a spring in the Snake Valley on Monday, Oct. 19, 2009.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

BAKER, Nev. — In Snake Valley, the sun comes up in Utah and sets in Nevada.

The man in the middle has worked both sides of the line for more than 50 years.

Dean Baker moved to the valley 300 miles northeast of Las Vegas in 1959 to help run a ranch his father took on there a few years earlier.

The only town on the Nevada side already was called Baker when Dean and his dad got there, but it might as well be named for them. By most accounts, Dean Baker and his three sons now control more private land and use more water than anyone else in Snake Valley.

Baker lives in Nevada, about three miles west of the border, but his ranching operations and his loyalties spill into Utah.

When the two states quietly launched talks almost a decade ago on how to share the valley's water, Baker served on Utah's negotiating team.

When Gov. Gary Herbert announced last month that Utah would not sign the finished agreement with Nevada, it set the stage for a cross-border fight over who controls water and where it should be allowed to go.

And there, smack in between, is Dean Baker.

The man in the middle can feel his mind slipping.

Alzheimer's, he thinks. He's been traveling to St. George, Utah, for tests.

Baker beat cancer eight years ago, but he is afraid he won't beat this, not forever. He already is handing off control of the ranch and other assets to his family to make things easier if his health deteriorates.

Sometimes he can't recall the names of people he has known forever. Or he hears names but can't connect them in his head to the people they belong to.

It's strange, the 73-year-old says. "I remember less and talk more."

But some things come back to him just fine. Oct. 17, 1989, for instance. That's when Las Vegas water officials launched a sweeping grab for unappropriated groundwater across rural Nevada, including Snake Valley.

"There are some things I still remember a lot. The Southern Nevada Water Authority thing I still remember," he says.

Baker has spent much of the last 20 years attending meetings, writing letters, serving on committees and joining lawsuits in hopes of blocking the authority's multibillion-dollar pipeline proposal.

He even registered as a lobbyist during the last two Nevada legislative sessions, though he hasn't made as many trips to Carson City this time around.

Baker says he only went two or three times early in the session, mostly to hand out copies of a short DVD about Snake Valley to as many lawmakers as he could.

"It was only to fight Southern Nevada Water," he said.

Baker has been fighting that fight so long now that he has become the face of the opposition, his words and picture carried on the network news and in newspapers across the United States and Europe. Many of the stories cast him as a folk hero, the humble rancher fighting to protect his spread from the insatiable thirst of Sin City.

But Baker insists he is not just looking out for himself. He is convinced the pipeline would be a disaster for everyone — ranchers, wildlife, ratepayers in Las Vegas, everyone. Billions of dollars, wasted on nothing.

"It will be such a big disaster to Las Vegas that it will be a disaster to the whole state," he says.

What the authority wants simply isn't there, certainly not in Snake Valley, Baker says. If it ever was, people like him pumped it from the ground long ago.

"Baker Ranch has killed at least a half-dozen springs, and others have killed springs too," the Utah native says. "It's perfectly clear now that we're mining water, and we really need to shut some of our pumps down."

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