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On the Water Front: Pipeline, or Pipe Dream?

For as long as I’ve been living in Nevada, the Snake Valley Pipeline proposal has been one of those issues that’s constantly been heating on the back burner, only to occasionally remind us of the water war in our own backyard when any pipeline news breaks. Such was the case again last weekend, when the Nevada State Engineer issued his ruling on Southern Nevada Water Authority’s (SNWA) pipeline plan. So how did he rule, what’s at stake for Snake Valley, and where will Las Vegas get its water in the future?

Why did the state engineer change his mind?
Photo by Matt Affolter, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia

For nearly thirty years, SNWA has generally benefited from support from across the political spectrum at the federal, state, and local (well, in Las Vegas) levels. But when SNWA used the pipeline to justify raising water rates in 2012, cracks began to appear in its base of support in Southern Nevada. And when SNWA began to get bogged down in court, the once “inevitable” pipeline was starting to look more like an unfeasible pipe dream.

As recently as 2012, Nevada State Engineer Jason King approved SNWA’s plan for a 250 mile pipeline to extract and transport water from the rural Snake Valley (which straddles the Nevada-Utah state line some 160 miles southwest of Salt Lake City) to the Las Vegas Valley. But after several courts ruled against that approval (and how that approval was made), King issued a new decision on Friday denying permits to construct the pipeline. Both King and SNWA officials vowed to appeal the court ruling that led to this new decision, but their chances of winning on appeal have probably dimmed as state and federal courts have ruled against the pipeline.

Though SNWA has spent $79 million acquiring ranches (and their water rights) in Eastern Nevada, the new ruling took into account the already strained water resources of the region. King’s decision last Friday acknowledged that the pipeline would threaten the water supply for area ranchers, as well as the water supply for local wildlife, despite SNWA’s prior assertions that the pipeline would not jeopardize water supply for area ranchers or wildlife.

So the pipeline may be doomed… Is Las Vegas doomed as well? (Hint: No.)
Photo by Andrew Davey

Since 1989, SNWA has asserted that the Snake Valley Pipeline is necessary to diversify the Las Vegas region’s water supply. Indeed, some 90% of Vegas’ water comes from the Colorado River. And as climate change continues to ravage the planet, the entire American West has become increasingly vulnerable to extreme drought, including the Colorado River watershed.

However, there’s a catch: SNWA has already been preparing for the worst-case scenario of a drying Colorado River. SNWA is currently working on “The Third Straw” to extract Lake Mead/Colorado River water from an area of the lakebed below the “deadpool” level where the Hoover Dam hydroelectric power plant could no longer operate. In addition, some 25 years worth of water conservation has resulted in per capita water use declining while our population nearly tripled over that period.

This leads to the big question: If SNWA has already found ways to keep Las Vegas hydrated on a very tight water budget, why is the Snake Valley Pipeline necessary?

If the pipeline can’t save us, what can? (Hint: We’re already doing it.)
Photo by Andrew Davey

Though SNWA has often been lauded for its extensive and effective conservation efforts, many environmentalists have suggested Southern Nevada can still do better. For one, about 70% of our Lake Mead water goes to outdoor landscaping. And despite the progress made on conservation, Las Vegas uses about quadruple the amount of water per capita as San Francisco, another western city originally built on “sin” and “excess” (but one that’s recently become far more aggressive in reining in its water use).

While climate change and drought threaten the future of the already fragile Colorado River, it’s yet to be proven that Southern Nevada must divert water from Snake Valley in order to survive. Not only is the pipeline proposal still mired in legal challenges, but it’s a $15 billion-plus proposal that’s yet to be proven more cost-effective than strengthening the conservation standards that have kept Las Vegas wet and wild for the past quarter-century. As SNWA’s pipeline continues to travel nowhere fast, I can’t help but wonder: Is this really the pipeline or our future, or a pipe dream that’s destined to remain high and dry?

Cover photo by Matt Affolter, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia.


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