John Locher, Associated Press
In this July 16, 2014, file photo, what was once a marina sits high and dry due to Lake Mead receding in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Las Vegas. Water officials in Las Vegas aren’t giving up a nearly 30-year effort to obtain state approval to pump groundwater and pipe it to the state’s biggest city from arid valleys just west of the Utah state line. Southern Nevada Water Authority board members voted Thursday, Sept. 13, to appeal a decision by Nevada's top state water official that denied the agency key groundwater use rights in vast rural parts of Lincoln and White Pine counties.

Water always has been a precious commodity in the American West. But the combination of a prolonged drought and unprecedented growth in the region’s largest cities has taken it beyond precious and into the realm of life and death for communities, livelihoods and a fragile ecosystem.

Against this backdrop, the Southern Nevada Water Authority continues its relentless quest to pump groundwater from beneath land just west of the Utah state line. It is appealing a ruling by the state engineer that denied it access to key groundwater rights.

That decision was not made with the engineer’s wholehearted enthusiasm. It was necessitated by District Court Judge Robert Estes, who ruled that Nevada’s engineer was “arbitrary and capricious” when he decided six years ago to approve a pumping plan.

The water engineer, Jason King, has promised to appeal that decision.

Meanwhile, he also has approved a different plan, the “3M plan,” that would monitor, manage and mitigate any environmental impacts that result from pumping water. It’s unclear, however, whether such problems could be detected in time to save a fragile desert ecosystem.

The underlying problem here is easy to understand. Las Vegas continues to grow quickly. Clark County now is home to more than 2.25 million people, according to county estimates. But drought has taken a toll on Lake Mead and the Colorado River, two major supplies of water.

That is becoming a common concern among major metropolitan areas in the West. California is handing out money to cities for new water management projects that could help that state’s population survive prolonged drought. In the Beehive State, the Utah Drought Review and Reporting Committee met recently for the first time in 10 years to review the enormous economic costs of the current six-year drought. Ranchers and farmers are being hit especially hard.

The Salt Lake metro area, meanwhile, also ranks among the nation’s fastest growing areas. To the south, Phoenix struggles with similar problems. New York University sociologist Andrew Ross has called it the world’s least sustainable city.

"  A metro area should not be allowed to take water from people with existing rights or destroy an ecosystem. "

But Nevada’s desire to pump water from distant underground aquifers is not a sustainable solution to this problem.

Originally, Nevada wanted to pump beneath the Snake Valley, which includes parts of Nevada and Utah. Now it is focusing on other basins in eastern Nevada.

To pump water from these aquifers to Las Vegas would cost billions of dollars. The fear is that this would drain water beneath land in Utah that is used for ranching and other agricultural purposes. Without adequate groundwater, these concerns would suffer, as might plants and trees that help keep soils in place. The result could be huge dust storms in the region, perhaps spreading to major metro areas.

A number of concerned organizations have filed petitions in this case, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this newspaper. The church owns a ranch in Spring Valley, which is in White Pine County, and believes pumping would put its land at risk.

21 comments on this story

These efforts are hardly new. Legal challenges over pumping plans to serve Las Vegas began in 1989. It’s tempting to compare the legal costs to what Nevada might have accomplished by instead seeking other alternatives.

We sympathize with southern Nevada’s problem, which is so similar to the challenges confronting other major cities in the region. However, a metro area should not be allowed to take water from people with existing rights or destroy an ecosystem. It must focus on finding other alternatives.