Water Wars: Quenching Las Vegas' Thirst

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It's a stunningly beautiful corner of the country: the Snake Valley, in White Pine County, Nev., straddling the Utah border.

Home to cattle ranches, alfalfa farms and endangered species, it's people who are few and far between along this desert landscape. That's because the Snake Valley is dry -- one of the driest parts of the driest state in the union, getting only about 8 inches of rainfall every year.

Dean Baker, who's been ranching in the valley for almost 50 years, says that's what makes the land unique. "Water in this country is always the determining factor," he says. "You could make this whole valley green, or put cities in it, if you had enough water. Water has always been the limiting factor, and it always will be. If there were more water here, there'd be more people."

The Inescapable Equation

People need water. It's an inescapable equation, and one that faces this western state. Las Vegas, that glimmering city rising out of the desert, is 250 miles south of Baker's ranch.

Once little more than a gambling outpost, Las Vegas has become the fastest-growing city in the nation. Its population is currently 1.8 million, and is projected to hit 3 million by 2020. Las Vegas is a city with a ferocious thirst that it's having a hard time slaking.

The major water supply for Las Vegas comes from the Colorado River, which has undergone a drought as a result of climate change, says Pat Mulroy of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

"Climate change is here," Mulroy says. "We've been living it for the last eight years. The drought on the Colorado River was a rude wake-up call. Frankly, when 90 percent of your water comes from one river that is predicted to have massive water shortages, you'd be irresponsible not to develop water supplies that are independent of that river system in order to diversify."

The plan for diversification is controversial. Mulroy, the city's water czar for almost 20 years, has proposed a plan to build a $2 billion pipeline that would pump water out of White Pine County and send it down to feed the growing water needs of southern Nevada.

Keeping the Puzzle Together

"People are moving to Las Vegas for the jobs, for the economic opportunities, and because they like living here. These people are going to come -- we can't wall ourselves off," Mulroy argues.

"It is our job as the authority to make sure that there's an adequate water supply for them. And that is a delicate jigsaw puzzle," she says.

But Baker is adamant that his valley not become a piece of that puzzle. Baker argues that the amount of water in the ground is so limited that any additional pumping will wreak havoc on the area's environment, and economy.

Baker says there have already been problems caused by the amount of water used in the valley, which is a "drop in the bucket" compared with the amount that Mulroy hopes to use.

"Our experience says those springs will dry up and those meadows will go away," he says. "They're the home of livestock and wildlife and all kinds of things. I just so strongly believe it will not work without leaving an environmental problem that will live for years."

Threatening the Rural Lifestyle?

Mulroy says the project will be able to respond to the environment on the spot, by drilling additional wells if the original locations start to show signs of damage.

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