Water grab is eerie reminder of MX boondoggle
May 31, 2005
Similarities between the Las Vegas water grab and the decades-gone MX missile project are remarkable, especially now that I have a house in Baker.
Baker, in White Pine County, was the epicenter of the MX and is now proposed to be the top end of the giant straw to drain water from Snake and Spring valleys on either side of the Great Basin National Park and pump it south to fuel growth in Las Vegas.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority is proposing to build a 420-mile pipeline to extract water from White Pine and Lincoln counties at an estimated cost of $2 billion. MX threatened the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah 25 years ago when the Air Force wanted to deploy real nuclear missiles and fake ones too on racetracks in the most pristine parts of the Great Basin, despoiling the valleys and using massive amounts of water to construct the basing system.
Dubbed a boondoggle by sensible people in both states, the MX united in opposition environmentalists, ranchers, miners and prospectors, Native Americans, public officials, retired military, and even the Mormon Church, which denounced the project.
The water grab is similar to MX because it would destroy the land. Extracting all the “unappropriated” water from fragile basins is likely to have a detrimental effect on existing users. But with a costly pipeline siphoning rural water south, it will be too late to stop the flow to Las Vegas when the impacts are felt here in Baker. The prospect of losing land, water and a living is already galvanizing citizens groups in both states to oppose the Las Vegas Big Gulp.
In Citizens Against the MX, author Matthew Glass concludes that the project was, in the words of a Nevada cattleman, “bad economics, bad [nuclear] strategy, bad land use.”
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Bad economics? Consider the size of the project and its cost. Southern Nevada Water Authority asserts that without this project, growth in Las Vegas will collapse, and with it, life as we know it in Nevada. Skeptics have yet to see a projection of residential and commercial water rates for Las Vegas water customers to pay for the pipeline and well fields. White Pine County Commissioner Gary Perea thinks it is a bad business decision to spend that kind of money to deplete a finite resource, especially when it won’t forever quench Las Vegas’s thirst for water and growth.
Bad strategy? Southern Nevada Water Authority formed an advisory group, including representation from the target rural counties, to look at its needs and water resources. But it did not allow the group to consider the control or management of growth in its study or recommendations.
Then SNWA itself released a report on the economic impacts of a “growth interruption” in Southern Nevada. Not identifying the underlying cause of the interruption, the study looks at a range of dire impacts on the construction industry and repercussions in the state’s economy.
The focus on the construction industry is reminiscent of MX. When the Air Force tried to sell the project in White Pine County, it touted the dream of construction jobs. As an activist helping to build the diverse coalition opposed to MX, I discovered that construction industry representatives were MX boosters because of the short-term jobs, regardless of the impacts on the state, individual communities, or the environment.
Bad land use? Here’s the dilemma. If “unappropriated” water is removed from these fragile high desert basins, it will have an effect on existing users. Dean Baker represents White Pine County on the SNWA water advisory group, and has a large family-supporting ranching operation in Snake Valley east of Wheeler Peak. He believes that the water is in balance now, not all being used.
When large quantities (200,000 acre feet per year) are removed, the equilibrium will be disrupted, drying up valley and mountain springs, lowering the water table, and permanently destroying his family’s ability to earn a living from the land and water in the place they call home.
And it’s not just about agriculture. The rural qualities of White Pine County, land of open spaces, including the ecosystem, fishing, hunting, tourism and community, are all intertwined and in jeopardy because of this rapacious water grab.
Like MX, the project would take over lots of land. A powerful outside force would exert additional control over the land – in addition to the ever-present Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies that control 87 percent of Nevada’s land area.
Water extraction projects treat water as a commodity. Agriculture is considered just another form of business, rather than the way we grow food to survive. Here in Baker, water is essential to individual and economic survival, and agriculture is part of the fabric of life.
What’s wrong with the water grab is that it demands that we trade the future of rural Nevada for the economic “health” of Las Vegas, and ultimately the state.
The Air Force wanted to turn the Great Basin into a sacrifice zone, for us to take a nuclear hit from the Russians and save the rest of the country. The SNWA is asking rural Nevada to take the hit to keep fueling growth, or else. The not-so-veiled threat is that if White Pine County doesn’t cooperate with SNWA, they’ll dry us up and blow us away.
The Bureau of Land Management, on behalf of Southern Nevada Water Authority, is asking for comments on the scope of a massive environmental impact statement to find out the impacts of the 420-mile, $2 billion water extraction project on White Pine and Lincoln Counties in eastern Nevada.
Mail written comments to the BLM, Ely Field Office, HC 33 Box 33500, Ely, NV 89301 or fax to (775) 289-1910. The deadline is June 15. Commenting on the scope of this controversial and impact-ridden water grab will show that people from all parts of Nevada are concerned about the water grab and the future of rural Nevada.
n Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.