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Monday, May 20 2013 2:41 PM EDT2013-05-20 18:41:28 GMT
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Nevada's state engineer is putting the squeeze on the use of groundwater in the massive development called Coyote Springs, north of Las Vegas.
The engineer says only 16,000 acre feet of groundwater can be pumped each year in Coyote Springs, not enough for agricultural irrigation. The amount of water available there is a central question for developer Harvey Whittemore, who wants to create a sprawling city in the desert.
Uber lobbyist and ambitious developer Harvey Whittemore wants to create a world class planned community, so he's going the extra mile in many regards, proposing a massive solar farm to power his thousands of homes, setting aside thousands of acres for a nature preserve, looking for ways to reuse wastewater on his 42,000 acres.
But there are serious questions about whether there was ever enough water in Coyote Springs to meet Whittemore's needs, let along those of competing users. And there are questions about how much political juice has been used to move his project along.
"There is no real geography here that helps to make a pipeline to Coyote Springs," said Farrell Lytle. In a pristine area near the Utah line, Eagle Valley resident Farrell Lytle points to a vast ranch now owned by developer Harvey Whittemore. Lytle and his neighbors suspect Whittemore wants to take the water from this ranch and some others he's acquired and pipe it to his massive Coyote Springs development 100 miles to the south, a smaller version of what the Southern Nevada Water Authority wants to do to rural valleys further north, using a multi-billion dollar pipeline to bring rural groundwater to Las Vegas. Chances are, Whittemore will use the public pipeline to ship his water too.
George Knapp: "If not for the SNWA pipeline, you would build your own pipeline?"
Mike Hillerby, Coyote Springs executive: "We are prepared to do that, absolutely. It is our responsibility to either find a partner or do that ourselves."
George Knapp: "Pretty handy to have a pipeline coming."
Hillerby: "No doubt about that."
Public agencies and elected officials have jumped through a lot of hoops to help the Whittemore project. When SNWA bought a piece of Whittemore's water rights for $25 million, it more than covered what he paid for the 42,000 acres.
If Whittemore uses the SNWA pipe, it would save him millions more. But the most important favor done for the Coyote Springs development is the political pressure that's allowed Whittemore to avoid problems with environmental laws.
The valley where he plans to build up to 150,000 homes, ten lush golf courses, and a couple of casinos doesn't have much water, yet several big customers claim rights to groundwater, including Whittemore, the water authority and water district, Lincoln County, and the Moapa tribe.
Scientists who've studied Coyote Springs groundwater for decades say there simply isn't enough to go around and everyone knows it.
"They have all been ignored. Purposefully. Purposefully. Because everybody wants more water," said Dr. Martin Mifflin, hydrologist.
"In fact it's the same pile of water," said Dr. James Deacon, biologist.
When federal agencies looked at the potential effects of pumping just the water district's claims, they found it would be devastating to the environment. A 1995 United States Geological Survey study of groundwater pumping throughout rural Nevada predicted a drop in the water table of several hundred feet. The Department of Interior filed a protest in 1998 because it said pumping could wipe out the habitat of endangered species like the Moapa Dace. Yet, overnight, the agencies backed off and agreed to allow SNWA to monitor itself.
"They are under a legal and moral obligation to ensure the long term survival of that species but instead they have chose to turn a blind eye," said Rob Mrowka, Center for Biological Diversity.
Environmental groups say its obscene for public agencies to OK development that leap frogs 60 miles out into the desert, far from any services, even if, as in this case, the developer plans to pay to extend those services.
How helpful has the government been? Whittemore objected to having huge overhead power lines running through his land, so Congress detoured the right of way, moving from the east side of the highway to the west -- for 37 miles -- even though the land to the west is supposed to be federally protected.
These days, with the housing market in a slump, Coyote Springs is in a holding pattern. Its vast plantations of desert fauna don't appear to be getting much water, even the palm trees at the entrance. The PGA golf course is rich and lush though and the company still hopes to build nine more.
George Knapp: "People in Las Vegas are being asked to conserve water, cut back, get rid of their lawn, and you guys are building a golf course?"
Hillerby: "Anytime you build a golf course, there's going to be greens and there is going to be water involved. That is simply a matter of fact. The water is water that we own. It's been permitted here on site. That's part of the development that we think is an appropriate use."
Efforts have been taken to reduce the amount of turf used at the golf course but there are still plans to build several other courses.