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Great Basin Water

Protestors at the SNWA meeting held in Ely

INTRO: When John Freemont explored the west in the 1800's he found a vast area stretching across Utah, Nevada and California where streams from 400 mountain ranges don't drain into the ocean, but instead they seep into the ground and stay there. He coined it The Great Basin. The Southern Nevada Water Authority's plan is to tap this great basin in the north and pipe the water hundreds of miles south to Las Vegas. This week the S-N-W-A sent representatives to Ely Nevada where the project has not been well received. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.

PLASKON: Aside from a few springs and lakes, the desert landscape remains unchanged for 205 miles north of Las Vegas until White Pine County. This time of year trees stand between patches of snow.

SOUND: Outside Bristle Cone Pine Convention Center

PLASKON: The town of Ely is nestled in this forest on the borders of Great Basin National Park. Protesters stood in the cold outside Ely's Bristlecone Pine Community Center on Tuesday.

CINDY: This is probably the most beautiful part of Nevada. You are standing in it. Great Basin National Park. You ever been there? Ya. You start messing with the water that's all going to change. It is pretty great the way it is.

PLASKON: Cindy is one of a half-dozen protesters that gathered in front of the center where the Southern Nevada Water Authority held an open house for the community on it's plans. It wants to drill up to 190 wells north of Las Vegas drawing millions of gallons of water. The nearby town of Baker is at the entrance to Great Basin National Park and one area where the SNWA wants to put wells.

GARRETTE: I am Joanne Garrette and I live out in Baker. My concern about the water grab is that it won't work and knowing a lot of people that live in Las Vegas is that no one is in charge down there and they have ruined their own environment so that people are having to move away and with no plan for curbing the growth they are going to now ruin our environment by taking our water. And so it is not a good idea. Bad idea.


PLASKON: Inside the community center are the SNWA representatives in charge. Ely resident Curt Leed was standing off to the side watching them.

LEED: Taking it in.

PLASKON: The bearded man in a cowboy hat watched pensively as a dozen SNWA representatives clad in jeans and flannel shirts debate with residents. He's blunt in his assessment of why they want the water.

LEED: I wish they would just halt growth down there in Vegas, they knew it was growing back in the 70s and it is the driest climate of any big city in the country. They just need to limit the number of building permits, there is no need to rape and pillage this country up here to support those greedy bastards down there.

PLASKON: Despite a report a year ago sponsored by SNWA citing devastating effects of slowing growth in Las Vegas, the water authority says it has put in applications for water in the north to diversify Las Vegas' water supply. Sitting at a round table eating chips Kay Brothers, Deputy General Manager of SNWA tried to console worried residents.

BROTHERS: Under the water law there is considered by the state, unappropriated water that is there to be developed. We certainly don't want to dry you up or take your water. But the state doesn't even know the underground network.

PLASKON: She let the residents debate each other.

DEBATE: If they tap the water in Snake Valley, they don't know the source of the water that is feeding that valley. Now my question is what is the solution to that? Get the hell outta here. Ha ha ha ha ha. Now that is not a realistic solution. Why not? Because that is not going to happen. We are living in the real world.

PLASKON: Brothers maintains that the state engineer has plenty of unallocated water in the north and data to back it up.

BROTHERS: I think there are more facts about how much water is there. There have been studies since the 60s and continue to be done that bracket the amount of water that recharges in these basins.

PLASKON: But onter SNWA representatives at the meeting said scientists aren't so positive.

SNWA REP: We are talking generally about Hydrologists. Don't you agree that they would all say that they need more data and they can't give you a definitive answer on something, oh ya.

PLASKON: From a scientific perspective the problem is that the SNWA wants to drill into uncharted territory, known as the Deep Carbonate, a thousand feet into the ground. According to the USGS the Deep Carbonate or limestone could be 30 thousand feet deep in the earth across 193-thousand square miles, full of water. Though the SNWA isn't planning to pump water from Ely proper, pumping from deep in the ground nearby might affect water levels in towns and springs. As a result of SNWA's project, the Nevada State Engineer, the Utah State Engineer, the Desert Research Institute and the US Geological Survey are all studying the deep carbonate aquifer to determine just how much water is in the ground and try to anticipate the effects if its taken out. Mike Stroble is Deputy State Director for the USGS Water Program in Nevada. He says it's not his agencies place to determine if there is extra water for Las Vegas.

STROBLE: To say that something is in excess or extra the terminology is a qualification that is not scientific.

PLASKON: He says that's a political question for the state engineer who must decide how much Southern Nevada can legally affect other users and springs in the North. Stroble writes articles on water for the Ely Times to educate the public on water. He expects the articles to be published in book form by the SNWA in the next two weeks. What he can say about water in the Great Basin is that right now water systems are fairly in balance without serious pumping like SNWA has planned.

STOBLE: You can't alter a system without affecting it. The question is, what the affects will be.

PLASKON: The balance is something northern Nevada residents are keenly aware of. Nearly all of them have seen well levels drop under current use. Rancher Gary Lane of the White Pine Water Committee has lots of water rights in the area. He says his domestic well has dropped 37 feet in the past 10 years. He wants to be able to prove further drops if SNWA begins to pump water in the area.

LANE: We think that if at some point there is a problem we are going to have to go to court over it so right now that is what white pine county is doing we are going around and measuring the wells.

PLASKON: With the help of the US Geological Survey he plans to officially document and monitor more than 100 well levels. All this opposition to SNWA's proposal is Las Vegas' own fault according to Bill Hennings, another long-time Ely resident.

HENNINGS: They should have done it long, long time ago but they didn't. Just like every other thing done around here, they wait until the last (god) damn minute to do it. It is usually the way it goes. They should have done it 40 years ago.

PLASKON: Independent consultant and lobbyist for SNWA Joe Guild was at the meeting promoting the project too, but after listening to the arguments, even he doesn't seem convinced.

GUILD: Um, no, I'm starting to change my mind a little bit ummm. Every time I come out to White Pine County I get a different perspective.

PLASKON: According to the SNWA, changing minds of residents wasn't the purpose of the meeting. It was only to provide facts for the community. A similar workshop is planned in Caliente Nevada tonight, a region where SNWA has also applied for water rights. The Nevada Legislature may to sweeten the pot for rural counties in these water deals. Senate Bill 35 would give them the option to charge a 10 dollar fee per 300-thousand gallons of water they export. That's a good deal for the SNWA, which is currently paying 300 times that price for equivalent private water rights. Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR

SNWA Water Resource Plan