Tiny Nevada community fights to keep its water

SANDY VALLEY -- It's almost as if you need to get lost to get here, to dusty streets and aging trailer homes, to horses and ranches -- to an escape from somewhere else.

Residents who managed to find this rural speck on the map are friendly, but keep to themselves; individualists, but a community still the same.

"Please drive carefully. Old Horses. Blind dogs. Unruly kids," reads a sign on the way into town.

Almost unnoticed, a big company slipped inside their tranquility, looking for something it thought the 2,275 residents could spare. Vidler Water Co. wanted to give a little of Sandy Valley's water to another community.

A little or a lot, folks here didn't much care. They weren't sharing.

"They probably thought we were a bunch of country bumpkins," said resident Joy Hyde Fiore. "They so underestimated our passion for our way of life."

So began the fight between a company with a job to do and a tiny town whose future residents believe is in doubt.

The prelude to the battle comes on the way into town, along a dusty, two-lane mountain road few visitors travel. "Water! Save our Future" blares the roadside sign.

Sandy Valley is an unusual community that lies in two states and three counties. The California-Nevada line runs right through town, though most people live on the Nevada side, in Clark County. Inyo County, Calif., is to the west, San Bernardino, Calif., to the south.

It's 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas, but might as well be a world away from its glitzy neighbor. Bighorn sheep roam the land, the mountains dwarf the cars on the highway and trailers house most of the residents.

Residents like life the way it is, even if it means driving about 15 miles to the next town to a gas station.

So, Vidler's request to take some water got people organized, and now the self-named "water warriors" have a lawyer and an appeal pending.

It started in August 1999 when Vidler quietly asked Nevada State Engineer Hugh Ricci for 2,000 acre-feet of water from an aquifer that runs beneath Sandy Valley. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough water to supply a family of five for a year.

No one in Sandy Valley knew about the request.

Vidler, a water resource development company in the West and a subsidiary of La Jolla, Calif.-based PICO Holdings, was trying to obtain extra water for nearby Primm, an Interstate 15 freeway stop where the Primm family wants to build housing for casino workers and expand an outlet mall.

Vidler later decided it only wanted 1,400 acre-feet, and by July 2000, residents had noticed Vidler nosing around their wells.

Residents started talking and the Sandy/Mesquite Valley Development Association switched from organizing Easter egg hunts and Halloween parties to fighting the request. The "water warriors" held bake sales, raffles and cook-offs to raise money to hire an attorney, and they became water experts.

Signs went up around town, newsletters urged residents to be vigilant and letters went to state legislators and the media with the headline: "Take my water, take my life."

About two dozen residents showed up at a December 2001 hearing before the state engineer. They argued that taking any water would prevent future growth in Sandy Valley. Besides, Sandy Valley water shouldn't have to support another community, they said.

"We're trying to protect our own water for our own existence," said John Bacher, who along with his wife, Beth, is helping lead the water war.

Ricci told them that based on U.S. Geological Survey data from 1968, the area has 2,200 acre-feet that can be taken away each year without harming the water supply. He decided Sandy Valley has enough water for the future, too, based on a population estimate of 5,000 residents by 2020.

In June, Ricci granted Vidler a permit for just 415 acre-feet a year, meaning Vidler can draw 135 million gallons.

Neither Vidler nor Sandy Valley was happy, and they both appealed the next month in Clark County District Court in Las Vegas. Vidler wanted more and Sandy Valley didn't want the company to have any.

Residents argued that Ricci didn't take into account how much water the California counties use. Ricci said that's right because he only has jurisdiction over Nevada.

"It's such a small amount of water, but it's everything to them," he said.

No one knows that better than the citizens of the four communities that make up Owens Valley, Calif., some 175 miles northwest of here. A growing and thirsty Los Angeles tapped the Owens River for water in 1910 for an aqueduct built three years later. Farmers already had diverted much of the water, but Los Angeles sealed its fate, and the river gradually dried up along with many of the community's prospects.

And it's that story Sandy Valley fears could become its own.

"The long distance export of water from anywhere takes away that portion of that community's future," said Mike Prather, president of the Owens Valley Committee, a citizen oversight group.

"Water is everything in the West. We lost our future that way."

Vidler tried to compromise with Sandy Valley, even offering money if residents would drop their protests. If Vidler was given 1,400 acre feet, it would have paid Sandy Valley $140,000 to hire an expert and deepen wells if it were proved that taking water away lowered the water supply. Even if there was no effect after 10 years, Sandy Valley could keep the money for community improvements.

"We just didn't get anywhere," said Dorothy Timian-Palmer, Vidler chief operating officer. "They have closed the door to every approach we made to them."

That money would make a huge difference in a community in which there isn't a full-size supermarket and most roads aren't paved, but residents said it would be costly to prove water loss and didn't want the money anyway.

"They really thought they could buy us," Fiore said. "They ran into a community that money is not as important to them as their lifestyle."

On a recent Saturday, residents swirled cotton candy on sticks, offered drippy snowcones and bailed each other out of a makeshift jail at the Wild West Roundup, the town's latest fund-raiser. They sold recipes for jackrabbit stew, "I'm Appealing" T-shirts and a hair stylist gave $8 cuts in the sun as the smell of horse manure competed with the barbecue grill.

"This is our way of life," resident Dawn Haviland, a justice of the peace in nearby Goodsprings, said before heading to the rodeo.

Residents fear Vidler's request is just the beginning.

"It's like opening the floodgate," huffs resident Elaine Clark, 60.

Already, three other companies have requested Sandy Valley water to build power plants in the area. Ricci has not ruled on those. Residents figure a planned regional airport nearby also could invite water requests.

It could be years before the water war is settled, but until then, both Vidler and Sandy Valley say they'll continue the fight.

"Sandy Valley is a wonderful place to live," said Fiore, 64. "If we overdraw this basin, our property will be worth nothing. How do you start over?"


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