Las Vegas has always been a place where no expense is too much, where bigger is always better, and where less is never more. Southern Nevada leaders have decided that future growth must be accompanied by more water. Since the existing Colorado River source is overallocated the Southern Nevada Water Authority is look northeast into Utah. Growth in Las Vegas is always laced with extravagance—growth for the sake of growth. More condos, more houses, more golf courses in an arid land that must either export or store mass quantities of water to fuel such growth.
A battle has recently intensified over whether and how much water Southern Nevada should get in Snake Valley. Snake Valley, a deep underground aquifer that straddles the Utah-Nevada border is 40% within the state of Utah. This unforgiving area of Utah is one of the driest areas in the country yet Las Vegas proposes to pump 27,000 acre feet a year of this water to Southern Nevada.
Anybody have any idea how much an acre foot of water is? An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land with a foot of water. That equals 325,851 gallons of water in an acre foot. If you do the math thats over 9 billion gallons of water a year. Most people who live in this region work as ranchers that depend upon the already dwindling supplies of underground water. In addition, one of the most underrated National Parks in the west—Great Basin National Park, depend upon aquifers to feed area springs to sustain the local ecology. Factor in Utah sensitive species such as Bonneville cutthroat trout that depend upon these water resources to survive and it is easy to see that there is a lot at stake.
Both The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News recently reported that the Utah legislature passed HJR1 that mandates a cautious approach in its agreement with the state of Nevada by waiting for the results of an underground water study to be completed. This resolution will at least allow Utah to strike a deal with Nevada having the benefit of the best available science on the issue, and it will allow local residents to have a voice if and when an agreement is reached.
One wonders if the economic realties of the situation will play a spoiler role in the agreement between the two states. An objective observer might see one of the wealthiest areas of the country having its way with one of the most rural underdeveloped areas of the country.
Surely, in the end Vegas will get the water it wants even if the science proves that Vegas will suck the aquifer dry? Watch this battle as it unfolds because it will be one of our ultimate tests of whether rural livelihoods and the environment can win out over big money and influence. Also make sure your voice is heard so that your legislators, governor, and Utah Department of Natural Resources director Mike Styler acknowledge Utahns role in this process.
Joel Ban is an environmental attorney with Ban Law Office in Salt Lake City.