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Great Basin
Illustration by Aaron McKinney

Striking a balance

Desert Companion

Opponents continue the fight against the water pipeline — with some unlikely allies at their side

Standing on a hill overlooking Meadow Valley, near Pioche, a couple of people in a group from Las Vegas ask incredulously, “Is it natural?” Having left behind bone-dry desert when they turned off highway 93, they’re surprised by the lush vegetation blanketing the valley floor, food for the domesticated cows and wild deer that lounge on land settled by Farrel Lytle’s ancestors. Yes, the octogenarian Lytle affirms, with a quiet smile, his family and other ranchers have subsisted on the water that nourishes these pastures for 150 years.

“This was actually a destination for a group of pioneers,” he says. “In 1866, my second-great-grandfather was the guy in charge, and those houses you passed coming up, he was the stone mason (who built them). He arrived here with five wives, and he never got to live in any of those houses. He had to keep busy working to feed the family.”

Izaac Zevalking

Izaac Zevalking

The group that Lytle addressed was part of the Great Basin Water Tour, a mid-June educational trip through eastern Nevada organized by the Great Basin Water Network, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, and Great Basin Resource Watch. The route roughly followed the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s proposed pipeline to transport to Las Vegas water pumped from several valleys running along the eastern side of the state. Although there’s no current construction activity on the project, opponents say that it’s not dead, because the SNWA continues to seek related water rights from the state engineer and lists them in its long-term resource plans. The next hearing on those applications is scheduled for this fall. (An SNWA spokesman said no one from the agency could speak to Desert Companion for this story before press time.)

Support comes from

“We know the Legislature will be back to change state water law,” says Susan Lynn, who helped found the Great Basin Water Network in 2004, referring to a couple SNWA-backed bills that failed in the 2017 state legislative session, and which the water network believes would have made it easier for the authority to lay claim to rural water. “And we know that if the ruling by the state engineer is similar to his past rulings, we’ll be back in court again.”

Lynn jokingly characterizes the origin of the water network as an “unholy alliance.” To understand what she means, compare Lytle with Henry “Hank” Vogler, who owns a sheep ranch in Spring Valley, just north of where the water pipeline would begin. Lytle is a soft-spoken intellectual who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and was an adjunct professor in X-ray physics at Stanford. Vogler, on the other hand, is a sarcastic insurgent, as in this critique of SNWA: “They’re running around telling everybody how the boar ate the cabbage, and I’m not sure that they know whether Christ was crucified or shot in a craps game!”

It’s hard to imagine the two men having much in common, other than a love of family and land — but that was enough to convince them to support the water network. Each owns property in the valleys targeted for the pipeline project’s pumping, which they believe would lower the water table and dry up now-fertile plots that they hope to someday pass to their children.

“There are Native Americans and ranchers who think the land is everything, and the water makes it productive,” Lynn says. “That is the lifestyle they’ve chosen to live over the decades.”

In some cases, the land isn’t just productive; it has profound cultural value, too — for instance, the cedar swamp where Western Shoshone mother and son Delaine and Rick Spilsbury took the tour group the afternoon after the Vogler Ranch stop. The area off Highway 50 northwest of Great Basin National Park is sacred to the Ely Shoshone tribe because of its history both joyful and painful. A fertile oasis where generations of Native Americans gathered to hunt, harvest pine nuts, and collect herbs, it was also the site of brutal massacres by the U.S. military in the mid- to late 1800s.

“We believe the spirits of our ancestors who were murdered here live in these trees,” Delaine Spilsbury says, adding that she fears the water pipeline, which is slated to run through the area, would destroy the forest.

Hydrologist Tom Myers, a consultant for the water network, says her fears may be justified. Explaining the existence of areas like Lytle’s pastures and the Shoshone cedars, he notes that precipitation from the north-south mountain chains bordering the eastern Nevada valleys feeds a system of springs and aquifers that are replenished either from above, through runoff, or from below, with water that has soaked into the ground and circulates through a vast web of cracks in the carbonate rock.

Justin Lepper uses art to raise awareness about homeless

Justin Lepper uses art to raise awareness about the homeless

“I’ve spent a lot of time exploring in these areas, doing field work in similar parts of the state,” Myers says, “and I’ve realized how dependent they are on what little water there is. It wouldn’t take much of a change in that to have a major upset in these fragile desert ecosystems.”

This view suggests that Myers would object to land use such as farming and ranching, which divert natural flows, but he understands that operators like Lytle and Vogler use water with their own sustainability in mind. And he believes that SNWA’s pumping hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water annually from the area would cause degradation “many orders of magnitude greater” than anything the existing family businesses could wreak. Similarly, the Spilsburys’ Shoshone heritage makes them suspicious of public officials, such as the White Pine County Commission, but the tribe and county have joined lawsuits to fight the water pipeline. Regardless of their philosophical differences, ranchers and environmentalists, Indians, and politicians have banded together against a common enemy.

“We agree to disagree,” Myers says. “I mean, yeah, I’m on the environmental side of many things, but I’m looking at the technical stuff, and I’m not going to argue with any of these ranchers as to whether they may have voted for Donald Trump, for goodness sake. … We set aside our views on social or cultural issues or things like that.”

The approach has worked for 13 years to help protect the delicate coexistence of high desert and green meadows. If enough Las Vegans set aside their biases and joined the conversation, the network believes, a statewide water balance could be struck.

 

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