The Nevada State Engineer's ruling last week that water can be pumped from beneath arid valleys in northern and central Nevada is a troubling development for property owners in southwest Utah, as well as for the fragile desert landscape.
State Engineer Jason King's decision comes with conditions, including two years of monitoring before water is removed. The first stage of pumping would be an eight-year project involving 38,000 acre feet, after which environmental conditions would be evaluated before the second eight-year stage. Unfortunately, if pumping causes problems in the desert, nature may not provide any second chances to make things right.
A similar plan to pump water that would directly affect Snake Valley, which straddles the border between Nevada and Utah, has been on hold pending the decision on the Nevada groundwater. Because that one involves parties in two states, the process will be more complicated, but this week's ruling was a bad first step.
No one knows for sure what would be the impact of pumping so much water from beneath already arid deserts. Proponents say the area contains enough excess water to provide for the growth needs of Las Vegas while still leaving plenty in place for ranchers, wildlife and fragile plant species that keep soil in place. But some scientific studies have described the potential for a nearly catastrophic impact on the fragile ecosystem, leading to dust storms and ruining ranching and agricultural operations.
Environmentalists have long warned that there are natural limits to growth in the West, but few people have ventured to predict exactly how those limits would assert themselves. We sympathize with Las Vegas and its need for water, given that parts of Utah also are among the nation's fastest growing. But tempting ecological disaster in order to service that growth would be self-defeating. Once the water is gone, there is no putting it back.
This struggle will play itself out over a long period of time. The Southern Nevada Water Authority says it won't consider pumping the water until its allotment from the Colorado River begins to be inadequate. Once that happens, it says the Nevada projects approved last week would supply up to 300,000 homes. That would set the possibility of using Snake Valley water many years into the future.
However, the decisions made today will set those long-term events in motion. Some Utah concerns have said they want to appeal the decision to Nevada's district court. That sound like a good course of action. Something this important has to be decided correctly the first time. The stakes are too great to do otherwise.
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