Last Friday, the Nevada State Engineer ruled against the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) in its bid to transfer water from rural Eastern Nevada to Las Vegas via a 300 mile long pipeline. And yet, both the State Engineer and SNWA are appealing this decision, leaving us to wonder what might happen next in this nearly three decade long saga. To get a better sense of what’s going on, I spoke with an expert who’s been at the forefront of this water war about SNWA, the point of the pipeline, and how Las Vegas can grow more sustainably.
“These are not renewable resources. It’s a singular pot of water. If you take this water out, you won’t get it back.”
– Patrick Donnelly, Center for Biological Diversity
Earlier today, I spoke with Patrick Donnelly, Nevada State Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, about his organization’s fight against the pipeline. We kicked off our conversation with a bit of a deep dive into Nevada State Engineer Jason King’s decision not to allow SNWA to divert water from White Pine and Lincoln Counties to Clark County. How did that come about?
According to Donnelly, “Multiple courts have said there’s no way you can pump water without decimating the communities that rely upon the water in this region. […] That’s almost industpable at this point. There’s no way you can mitigate draining an aquifer.”
But wait, how would the aquifer be drained? Donnelly explained what he considers the key flaw of the formula the state used prior to last week’s court-ordered redo: “[According to the State Engineer,] the same amount of water comes in through rain as comes out through springs and evapotranspiration. The premise is that there’s excess water.”
Donnelly countered, “In reality, these basins are full of fossil water. These are not renewable resources. It’s a singular pot of water. If you take this water out, you won’t get it back.” Or in other words, SNWA can’t just remove water from the basins in question and expect Mother Nature to fully compensate for it.
“The entire premise is built on taking water from the entire landscape.”
– Patrick Donnelly
So how exactly would SNWA’s pipeline decimate this rural corner of the state? Even today, SNWA and the State Engineer continue to assert that the four areas in question have enough water to fill the pipeline without disturbing the water supply for local communities.
Donnelly countered by explaining the hydrology of the region: “Eastern Nevada is part of a larger carbonate rock province. The water in the aquifer connects to land that spreads for thousands of square miles. It’s not like they can just take the water from the ranches they own. The entire premise is built on taking water from the entire landscape.”
So regardless of how much land and water rights SNWA owns, “The water they have secured from the ranches they bought would not be enough to fill the pipeline,” Donnelly said. If they were to build and operate the pipeline, SNWA would inevitably drain the resources that ranchers and wildlife (such as bighorn sheep, deer, various species of fish, and the threatened sage grouse) depend upon.
As Donnelly put it, “There are people out here who live the land, work the land. They rely on the little bit of water that flows from the springs and wells.” Or in other words, if we drain the water from these springs, we risk leaving entire communities high and dry.
“There’s not supposed to be [ornamental lawn] grass in Las Vegas. Period. Our ecosystem does not support grass.”
– Patrick Donnelly
That brings us back to the big question we pondered on Monday: If the pipeline can’t help us, then what can? Like other local environmentalists, Patrick Donnelly sees much room for improvement in conservation: “SNWA still uses twice as much water as the rest of the west. Las Vegas is still flagrantly wasting Colorado River water every day.”
How so? Donnelly pointed to the lawn outside as Exhibit A: “We have over 50 grass golf courses in the valley. That’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of water use for grass and landscaping. There’s not supposed to be [ornamental lawn] grass in Las Vegas. Period. Our ecosystem does not support grass.”
Donnelly then added, “We need to take a long, hard look at how we’re using water in the Las Vegas Valley. There’s enough water in our allocation for us to grow.”
“If we sprawl in all directions, we will diminish our quality of life. If we build a pipeline 300 miles out, we will ruin what makes Nevada great.”
– Patrick Donnelly
So then, we must ask how much more we can realistically grow. As Donnelly sees it, “There’s still a pervasive philosophy of growth at any cost. There’s the idea that we’ll grow in perpetuity.” He continued, “It’s totally irrational to pursue growth without limits.”
Donnelly then summarized the risk this project presents to both urban and rural Nevada: “If we sprawl in all directions, we will diminish our quality of life. If we build a pipeline 300 miles out, we will ruin what makes Nevada great.”
While the Colorado River is nearing historic lows, Nevada is still not using its full allotment. And with the water we do use, about 70% goes to outdoor landscaping. As the SNWA pipeline plan remains mired in court, now might be a good time for us in Southern Nevada to contemplate how we use our water, and how we want to grow in the future.