Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
A cow grazes near a fence in the valley. Snake Valley aquifer water sharing agreement under consideration by Nevada and Utah officials. Monday, Oct. 19, 2009. Photo by Scott G Winterton Deseret News.

As almost every Utah resident knows, we have suffered the nation’s worst air pollution for long stretches during much of this past winter. Our pollution has brought us national and international scrutiny from The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo News, Huffington Post, Associated Press and all the national TV networks, including the Fox Business Channel. Even during an average year, most of the largest cities in Utah rank in the top ten worst cities in the country for acute spikes in pollution. In January, over 200 physicians and health care professionals signed a letter asking Gov. Gary Herbert to declare our air pollution a public health emergency. Nonetheless, Utah’s governor and Legislature finished the recent session without passing any meaningful air pollution bills.

But our air pollution is not limited to winter inversions. Nothing speaks to that more than what is waiting on Gov. Herbert’s desk right now, for a thumbs up or thumbs down, which he has stated he will give by April 1. I’m referring to the Las Vegas/Snake Valley Water Pipeline agreement. If he signs, he will set in motion what is likely the worst ecological/public health disaster in Utah’s history. His closest advisor has been publicly making the case for him to sign, and he seems poised to do so, unless massive citizen opposition is mounted. For Deseret News readers who might consider becoming part of that opposition, here is the back story:

Many years ago, Las Vegas decided to push for growth they knew could not be sustained with the water available to them. As reported in the Las Vegas Sun, the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg News and Channel 8 TV Las Vegas News, “Sin City” crafted a deliberate strategy to grow beyond their Colorado River water allowance, making a high stakes gamble — it comes natural to them — that they could force neighboring states and/or other parts of Nevada into giving up their water. They were excoriated by the national press, but then proceeded to quietly assemble the water rights for a $15 billion dollar “straw” to drain the ancient aquifers under central Nevada and western Utah and ship the water to their resorts, fountains and golf courses.

It turns out that farmers, ranchers and Goshute Native Americans bravely making a living in the desert of the Northern Great Basin must survive on the same water that Las Vegas intends to plunder for economic growth. The wildlife and native vegetation also need that water to survive. If they disappear, the West Desert will be transformed into the Sahara Desert, a source of eternal, choking, deadly dust storms. And that is exactly what has happened after water diversion projects in Owens Valley, Calif. and the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan.

Scientists not employed by Las Vegas warn that an area the size of the state of Vermont would be denuded of native vegetation, the water table will drop hundreds of feet, springs will dry up, the greasewood plant — the critical anchor for keeping desert surface soil intact — will disappear, rural communities will be devastated, and massive regional dust storms will ensue and never stop.

The $15 billion dollar “straw” is only a one time source of water. Once the aquifers have been depleted, in 50 years they’ll have an even worse water deficit than they have now, because Las Vegas will be even bigger, but with no more water than when they started. Long term, it is a recipe for disaster for both Nevada and Utah.

One of the main aquifers that Las Vegas wants lies under Snake Valley which straddles the Utah/Nevada border. Nevada must have Utah’s permission to start siphoning that water to Las Vegas. It is that permission that sits on Gov. Herbert’s desk. It is that permission that thousands of diverse individuals and groups have filed comments in opposition to.

Utah residents have only a few days left to tell the governor that he does not have our permission to let Las Vegas smother us with dust from the West Desert. Utahns are not willing to die for the sins of Las Vegas.

Brian Moench is the president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists.