Rancher in middle of water feud

By HENRY BREAN

For ASSOCIATED PRESS

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

When the man in the middle joined Utah's negotiating team, Southern Nevada Water Authority officials were surprised and a little concerned. After all, what chance was there for a reasonable deal in Snake Valley with one of the authority's biggest foes in the room?

But emotion and rhetoric never played a role in the discussions, says authority Deputy General Manager John Entsminger, who represented the agency's interests as part of Nevada's negotiating team. "Those talks were very professional and very cordial."

The resulting deal, unveiled in August 2009, split the valley's resources evenly between the two states, laying the groundwork for future development in a watershed large enough to swallow Delaware.

Nevada signed the document later that year. Utah never would.

Gov. Herbert finally made that official on April 3. He then summed up his position nicely in a Twitter post a week later: "Our message to Las Vegas: What flows into UT, stays in UT."

Nevada officials are still mulling their next move. Some believe the fight over Snake Valley could land in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The standoff also threatens the fragile peace over the Colorado River, where Nevada, Utah and the five other river states are finally working together after decades of bitter fighting.

As water authority spokesman J.C. Davis puts it, "For one state to behave in this manner cannot help but have a chilling effect on that cooperative spirit."

For once, the man in the middle and the water authority find themselves on the same side. Both wanted to see the water-sharing agreement signed.

Sure, there were things about the deal that Baker found "ridiculous." For one thing, he says, it divvied up "huge amounts of water that don't exist."

But he supported it because he felt it protected his valley more than the existing water laws in either state ever could.

It's a lonely stance to take in Snake Valley, where most residents fear such a deal would make it easier for Las Vegas to siphon groundwater from beneath their homes and Nevada's own Great Basin National Park.

But Baker says his neighbors are still neighborly, even when they disagree with him.

"People have argued with me, and I have tried to explain why I felt the way I did. I have never been criticized by anyone."

At one public meeting, Baker and another rancher went around and around about the interstate water agreement. After it was over, the old fellow came over, gave him a hug and said, "I hope one of us is right."

That man was Cecil Garland from Callao, Utah, a wide spot in the road where northern Snake Valley empties into the Great Salt Lake Desert. The 87-year-old has plenty of unflattering things to say about the water authority and its pipeline plans, but he has no beef with Baker.

"I respect him. I don't agree with him on parts of this thing, but I respect him," Garland said. "Without Dean Baker and his boys, there wouldn't be anything left in this valley. They stood their ground. They wouldn't sell."

The Bakers' operation now includes more than 12,000 acres in Nevada and Utah, a single, family-owned corporation in control of what used to be a dozen separate ranches.

In addition to the cattle they raise, they tend fields that produce hundreds of truckloads of alfalfa each year.

Hay grown in Snake Valley feeds milk cows in California and horses in Las Vegas, Baker says. Some of it even crosses the Pacific Ocean to supply dairies in China.

Despite numerous offers and inquiries, including a few from Southern Nevada, Baker says he has never seriously considered selling his land, and neither has his family.

"What would we do if we just had a pile of money? A pile of money is a valueless thing in my opinion."

Besides, their business is doing just fine; his sons have seen to that.

"They're making more money with the ranch than I ever did," Baker says with pride.

He hopes they find similar success someday when they inherit the water fight from him.

Until then, the man in the middle plans to keep fighting.

"I didn't do this to get famous. I did it because I thought it was wrong for (Las Vegas) and wrong for us," Baker says. "It's just because I'm a bullheaded, opinionated old goat."

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