I-Team: Water Authority Plays Hardball With Rural Nevadans - 8 News NOW

George Knapp, Chief Investigative Reporter

I-Team: Water Authority Plays Hardball With Rural Nevadans

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The Southern Nevada Water Authority is playing hardball with rural Nevadans who are opposed to a multi-billion dollar pipeline project.

Residents in White Pine County and elsewhere remain opposed to any plan that would take groundwater from under their feet and send it to Las Vegas. One way SNWA is eliminating the opposition is by buying them out, and for huge sums.

Three years ago this week, Rancher Brandon Humphries told the I-Team he vigorously opposed any plan that would siphon groundwater from White Pine County and pipe it hundreds of miles to Las Vegas.

Humphries said, "I don't like the idea of my place drying up for another condo or casino in Las Vegas."

He urged his neighbors to fight to the end against SNWA. That was then. Today, Rancher Humprhies is an employee of the SNWA. He sold his 880-acre spread for more than $6 million and stayed on as manager.

In the northern part of the Spring Valley, the El Tejon Ranch also sold out to SNWA -- 11,400 acres -- for a whopping $32 million. The valley is a rancher's paradise, green, well watered and dotted by spreads that have been in the respective families for close to a century. It's an era that's coming to an end because Las Vegas wants the water and is willing to pay plenty to get it.

Former Commissioner John Chachas said, "The ranching business is a tough business, especially when you're trying to do it in the desert. So I don't hold anything against them for selling. It's millions, but the ripple effect is making us all very nervous."

After 16 years as a White Pine County commissioner, Chachas knows the politics of water. But he never expected anything like the buying spree now underway. White Pine has been united in its opposition to the proposed water pipeline. Elected officials who dared to suggest negotiating with Las Vegas have been drummed out of office.

It's the ranchers who've been the staunchest opponents. But SNWA has found a way to effectively silence the ranchers by buying them out -- their homes, their land, their cattle, and most importantly, their water rights. The prices being paid are in, a word, outrageous.

John Chachas continued, "And then comes along deep pockets, deep pockets with a checkbook, and, it appears, unlimited resources to buy these folks out. And when you have millions waved in front of you, you think twice about whether you want to go fight the winters and the drought conditions trying to make a living or take the money and live a comfortable life."

According to the county recorder's office, the assessed value of the El Tejon Ranch was $396,000. Multiply that times three for the approximate market value, it's around 1.1 million, but SNWA bought it for 32 million.

The assessed value on the 440-acre Phillips Ranch is $56,000. The market value is $168,000, but it sold for $2.1 million to SNWA. The 1143-acre Harbeck Ranch is $85,000 assessed, $255,000 market value, and purchased for $4.8 million.

Brandon Humphries' Wahoo Ranch was worth in the neighborhood of $720,000. It sold for $6 million. Even the most die-hard pipeline opponent can't blame the ranchers when that much cash is being waved around.

Chachas said, "I wish I had a couple of ranches, even one ranch out there."

A 6,300-acre ranch is next in the SNWA's crosshairs. Negotiations began in March. Coincidentally, it's owned by the family of White Pine Commission chairman Brent Eldridge, who has now removed himself from any water talks. It could go for 30 million or more. Another Spring Valley ranch, 7,300 acres, was purchased six years ago for 4.4 million by Vidler Water Company, which wanted to swap it for land closer to Las Vegas. Instead, it sold the ranch to SNWA for $22 million, a tidy profit to which Vidler makes no apologies.

"There needs to be a true awakening of the ratepayers in Clark County as to what the consequences of this project are going to cost," John Chachas added.

The SNWA is exempt from laws that require other agencies to seek appraisals before buying land. Water chief Pat Mulroy admits ranchers have tried to squeeze the agency for every dollar they can get, knowing that the water authority has deep pockets and wants the water rights.

However, Mulroy defends the overall plan because Southern Nevada needs water security, she says.

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

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