Pipeline a mistake despite circumstances

The Las Vegas newspaper this past week editorially pointed out the city’s primary water source is drying up. That’s obvious from the broad white bathtub ring around Lake Mead.

To slake Las Vegas’ thirst, the editorialists suggest tapping groundwater from rural Nevada — a proposition that actually would be harmful for both the rural area and the urbanites.

The editorial correctly states that drought on the Colorado River watershed is historically normal and they can last for decades and argues that this is why the still growing metropolitan area should develop whatever additional water resources it can.

“Make no mistake, no one wants to build the rural groundwater pipeline. Indeed, several lawsuits aim to prevent it, and the cost of the project would be massive — many billions of dollars, including service on construction debt,” the newspaper argues. “But make no mistake, the water authority must be prepared to forge ahead if river conditions continue to deteriorate.”

That would be making a mistake.

According to the state engineer, who is the water rights arbiter in Nevada, the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plan to draw 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater would affect the water table outside the valleys that would be tapped. Groundwater in Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys, which the SNWA plans to tap, are linked to the White River Flow System and drawing down the water table in those valleys could affect water resources as far away as Pahranagat Valley, Lake Valley, Muddy River Springs Valley, Lower Moapa Valley, and Coyote Spring Valley.

One state lawsuit opposing the pipeline project contends, “The proposed pumping would amount to a devastating groundwater mining project, under which the groundwater system would not even begin to approach equilibrium for thousands of years, with the potential of never reaching equilibrium.”

That would deter rural development efforts.

Ruling in a federal lawsuit brought by the Great Basin Water Network, Judge Robert Estes concluded unambiguously that the rather ambiguous plans to mitigate damage to the rural water users are wholly inadequate, saying that if “it is premature to set triggers and thresholds, it is premature to grant water rights.”

Estes repeatedly called the plans for monitoring, mitigating and managing flawed and the water transfer plan “arbitrary and capricious.”

He remanded the case and told the state engineer to recalculate water availability and further study to “establish standards for mitigation in the event of a conflict with existing water rights or unreasonable effects to the environment or the public interest.”

As for urban Clark County, the bottom line is that it’s still too darned expensive.

The infrastructure cost is still $7.3 billion, according to a study by Hobbs, Ong & Associates of Las Vegas and Public Financial Management of Seattle. The cost per acre-foot just for the capital expense alone is well north of $2,000 per acre-foot. That’s while Colorado River water is being sold to farmers in California and Arizona for well less than $20 per acre-foot.

As the SNWA’s own study admits, water rates in Las Vegas would at least triple if the groundwater is tapped and piped south. That would deter development in Clark County.

The first thing that should be done is to fill Lake Mead with Lake Powell water. While Mead is dropping, Powell’s level is up 35 feet since April.

Research for the Glen Canyon Institute by hydrologist Dr. Thomas Myers found that 260,000 to 390,000 acre-feet of water seeps into the banks of Lake Powell annually, which the Bureau of Reclamation, the manager of the river, fails to take into account.

Nevada’s annual allotment of Colorado River water is 300,000 acre-feet.

But the real solution lies in changing water from a socialized commodity doled out by government bureaucrats to one freely bought and sold.

Allow the municipalities, industries, farmers and ranchers with existing water rights to buy, sell and trade in an open market. Why would a farmer continue to grow rice or cotton with his $20 an acre-foot water, when he can sell it to the water authority in Las Vegas for, say, $200? Instead of allowing that allotment to flow through the dams and canals to Yuma, Las Vegas could take that share from Lake Mead.

No need for a rural water pipeline. — TM

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