Dean Baker: A water hero
May 16, 2017
Eastern Nevada rancher Dean Baker's water bucket list included a bucket. A real metal 20-foot-tall bucket. Dean devised the larger-than-life symbol for parades and rallies, and as an icon for Water Grab opposition. The Las Vegas Water Grab — politely known as the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) Clark, Lincoln and White Pine Counties Groundwater Development Project — surfaced in 1989 when Las Vegas filed on all the unappropriated groundwater in large swaths of eastern and central Nevada. That included Snake Valley which straddles the Nevada-Utah border. Dean Baker's family ranch is located in Snake Valley in sight of Wheeler Peak and in the sights of SNWA's rapacious water pipeline overreach.
It was a bold move for Las Vegas in 1989, and if it weren't for Dean Baker's toe-to-toe engagement with project proponents, and his willingness to work with anyone concerned, water might be going south today. But it isn't.
Most people's bucket lists are fun: France, the pyramids, a cruise to Alaska. But Dean Baker's water bucket list was different.
Engage SNWA on their own turf: In 2003, Dean Baker was invited to be a "stakeholder" in SNWA's Integrated Water Planning Advisory Committee to work on Las Vegas' water needs. For two years, Dean attended meetings in Las Vegas and endured the schmoozing of an assigned political heavyweight whose mission was to psyche Dean out and get him to sell his ranch and water rights to SNWA. (In 2008 Emily Green's five-part series on water in the Las Vegas Sun recounted this experience and other Dean water adventures and serves as reference for this article). Dean told them they needed an independent hydrology committee to determine whether the water is actually available, before spending billions to build the pipeline. The final report included his written recommendation, but it was ignored.
Negotiate with SNWA: A provision in federal law required before SNWA could take water from Snake Valley, Nevada and Utah had to agree on the division of the waters of Snake Valley. Nevada's negotiating team consisted of SNWA and state officials — no representation of White Pine County or Snake Valley. Dean Baker, with ranching interests on both sides of the line, was invited to join the Utah negotiating team. It was a secret and controversial process. Again, Dean attended many meetings. Again, he faced the schmoozer. Ultimately, negotiations ceased after a Nevada Supreme Court decision favored water grab opponents and Utah's governor backed away.
Say NO to SNWA: After SNWA bought ranches in Spring Valley, they wanted Dean's water rights. With the support of his three sons who now operate the ranch, they agreed not to sell, no matter the price.
Stand in SNWA's shoes: Dean Baker was a thinking man. He thought a lot about SNWA's ambitious overreach to take water in eastern Nevada because he worked the land and water every day. He knew the water SNWA planned to pipe isn't there. And he admitted the ranch's own water use for irrigation had dried up some springs. He needed to deliver that message to Southern Nevada the water pipeline project is a bad deal — for them.
Send a message: He invited legislators, reporters, anyone interested to take "Dean's water tour" of Snake Valley. And using the bucket as a billboard, he crafted a message. "SNWA Pipeline = $15 Billion. Economic and Un-natural Disaster. Water Grab Will Bleed Las Vegas Ratepayers and Eastern Nevada Dry." It's a natural backdrop for news coverage and a message that rings truer as the years pass.
Dean Baker died last Saturday. After a nearly 30-year struggle, the water is still where it is. SNWA hasn't given up, but pipeline plans are deferred while they fight to regain water rights in Spring Valley. Snake Valley water applications are still pending. Dean did as much as he could for as long as he could for a just cause. That's a water bucket list completed. Rest in peace, Dean, and keep an eye on the pivots.
Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.