LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Whatever happened to the multi-billion dollar plan to siphon groundwater from rural Nevada? Officially, it is off the table, but the coalition of citizens who fought against it said they expect what they call the “water grab” to rise from the grave.
The coalition, gathered in Baker, is an amalgam of urban liberals and rural conservatives. Ranchers and environmentalists. Figurative “cowboys and Indians.” Traditional adversaries who set aside their differences to oppose a plan that would siphon billions of gallons of groundwater from eastern Nevada aquifers and send it via a 300-mile-long pipeline to thirsty Las Vegas.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority was willing to spend $15 billion — perhaps more — to build the pipeline system. The plan is backed by Nevada’s most powerful forces: casinos and developers. Opponents were told resistance was futile.
The Great Basin National Park is the crown jewel of Nevada’s public lands. It is also one of the places that could have been jeopardized by the SNWA’s ambitious groundwater plan, and so, it seems, is an appropriate backdrop for what was called a “victory party.”
“We were not just fighting the project,” explained Abby Johnson, an opponent of the SNWA’s plan. “We were fighting inevitability. People would say, ‘You can’t fight the Southern Nevada Water Authority.’ But of course, we did.”
The SNWA has spent in excess of $100 million in public funds on the project. Records show the public is still paying for a long list of high-priced law firms, public relations companies and lobbyists who were hired, in part, to overcome opposition to the “water grab”, but scientific studies showed that sucking an ocean of groundwater from the rural counties could, in effect, create a vast dead zone in Nevada.
A lone attorney, Simeon Herskovits, prevailed again and again in state and federal courts.
“Their entire case was built on misdirection and misrepresentation of fundamental questions of fact, law, and policy,” Herskovits said. “You could see that this is not permitted to take water that doesn’t exist.”
After multiple defeats in court, the SNWA formally pulled the pipeline plan off the table and withdrew its claim to rural water. Despite the win, no one in the opposition thinks the fight is over. They point to one glaring fact — the SNWA still owns and operates a vast ranching empire in the targeted area.
Water agencies paid nearly $80 million to buy those seven large ranches. The ranches even have their own lawyer and lobbyist, paid with public dollars.
“They’re running cattle, and they’re running sheep, and you know they have close to one million acres of grazing allotments up there,” said Kyle Roerink with the Great Basin Water Network. “I don’t think that the Southern Nevada Water Authority remains on ag operations 300 miles north of here because they like the hay business.”
The SNWA declined to speak on camera about why it is spending public dollars to raise sheep and grow hay hundreds of miles away from its customers. In its formal documents, the SNWA explains its “northern resources” are a way to demonstrate “improved agricultural practices and livestock genetics and husbandry” and also to demonstrate financial efficiency.
Those lessons seem lost on the much smaller private ranchers who say they are being ground to dust being forced to compete against a government agency with deep pockets. The SNWA has gone after the grazing rights of ranchers Hank Vogler and Kena Gloeckner, among others, forcing them into costly legal fights that have dragged on for years.
Gary Perea, White Pine County Commissioner, fought the project while crisscrossing the state with his stepfather, late rancher Dean Baker. Perea predicts agencies will try to revive the “water grab” in the Nevada legislature by crafting legislation that might bypass water laws.
“The amount of money they’re putting into those ranches and running them is not … economically feasible,” Perea explained.
In the past, The SNWA has used what many call scare tactics to justify the “water grab.” There were numerous predictions of disaster and economic collapse unless Las Vegas could get the rural water by 2013. That deadline came and went nearly a decade ago, and Las Vegas is still thriving.
Opponents say the extended drought is likely to be the new excuse. Headlines about climate change and images of the drop in water levels at Lake Mead have already generated statements about how the SNWA needs to leave all options on the table.
When asked whether the rural pipeline is dead or alive, the SNWA told said it has been “deferred.”
“They deferred that project from their water resource plan,” said Kyle Roerink. “But they never said that we will never do this ever.”