I-Team: Vidler Leads Effort to Privatize Nevada's Water - 8 News NOW

George Knapp, Chief Investigative Reporter

I-Team: Vidler Leads Effort to Privatize Nevada's Water

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The largest private landowner in Nevada is a name you've probably never heard. A company called Vidler now controls more land than any casino or developer, but Vidler isn't exactly in the land business. Rather, it's in the water business. And business is good.

Critics think of Vidler Water Company as opportunistic, maybe even evil because it is exploiting the western water shortage for profit. The way Vidler sees it, it's doing the west a favor by developing water resources that the public sector either can't or won't develop on its own.

Either way, Vidler has become a major player in Nevada's water struggles, and chances are good that one day soon, the water in your home could originate with Vidler.

Stephen Hartman, with Vidler Water Company, said, "We are able to do things faster, usually cheaper, and we think, often better."

The executives of Vidler don't like to brag. In fact, they don't like to say much in public at all. But the huge operation they've put together in western states, including Nevada, has come to rival entire governments, both in expertise and resources.

Take for example the 28-mile water pipeline project being built north of Reno. Vidler will spend close to $100 million on the project. It bought a large ranch in Fish Springs, drilled wells, and is now preparing to pipe groundwater to a valley north of Reno that is primed for development but needs water. To those who consider Vidler an exploiter of public resources, the company notes it mostly fills a niche that government can't or won't.

Dorothy Timian-Palmer, with Vidler Water Company, said, "We are usually contacted by cities, governments, developers that need the water resources and are having difficulty, counties that want to develop their water resources but don't have the technical capabilities..."

"This myth that's out there is that it's government that developed the water resources, and the reality is, in the west, water was developed by the private sector," Vidler's Stephen Hartman continued.

For example, local government spent fifteen years trying to tap the water under Fish Springs Ranch, but failed. Vidler got it done on its own dime. Woe to anyone who compares this pipeline to the one proposed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to siphon water from rural areas, like White Pine County. Vidler notes that residents on both sides of its pipeline are on board with the project, and so are government entities. Not so that other pipeline. But that's not to say Vidler is welcome everywhere.

In White Pine County, for example, the company bought a huge ranch in Spring Valley and says it wanted to develop the property but couldn't because of opposition from local officials. It sold the ranch and its water rights for five times the purchase price. The buyer? Southern Nevada Water Authority. White Pine residents say Vidler wants to privatize what would otherwise be a public resource.

John Chachas, former White Pine County commissioner, said, "But you come in as an exporter to where you're going to take our natural resources and inflate the selling price, back or out of White Pine County. You're not a friend of White Pine County."

Residents of Sandy Valley in Clark County have their doubts, too. On behalf of the Primm casinos, Vidler applied for 2,000-acre feet of Sandy Valley's unused groundwater. The state engineer approved a lesser amount.

Las Vegas attorney and Sandy Valley landowner Al Marquis fought the allocation to the Nevada Supreme Court and won a reversal, but it was a close call. Marquis says it's illegal in Nevada to be a water speculator, buying it up like pork bellies or wheat futures, but the court says a third party like Vidler can act on behalf of a client to lock up water. To Marquis, it's scary.

"What Vidler is basically saying is I think there is some unused water in Sandy Valley. We want every single drop of the unused water, which means that for future development and that sort of thing in Sandy Valley. That water is not going to be available," Al Marquis said.

In cash strapped Lincoln County, though, Vidler was welcomed and formed a partnership with county officials. It's now developing water in one basin that will provide the water needed for a billion dollar development in Coyote Springs. Some see Vidler as good. Some see it as bad. Vidler says it is what it is.

Stephen Hartman commented, "It's the law of the West. Either use it or you lose it."

Vidler is doing well for its investors. Earlier this year, its parent company made a public offering in order to raise $100 million so Vidler could branch out and buy more resources.

The I-Team mentioned that ranch in White Pine County. It sold the ranch for $22 million to Southern Nevada Water Authority. SNWA is gobbling up other ranches too, for very large chunks of money.

Tuesday at 11 p.m., the I-Team will show you these ranches and tell you how much public money is being spent on them.

E-mail your comments to Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp.

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