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Southern Nevada Water Project

Lake Mead

If you go out to Lake Mead and see that ring visible around it, you might get a little nervous. The water level is low.

Half a century ago, Las Vegas also had a water problem. The underground supply was down, and the city was growing rapidly. Regional leaders had begun discussing pumping water from Lake Mead into Las Vegas. And in 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation creating the Southern Nevada Water Project, making subsequent growth possible. But it wasn’t easy.

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Arizona v. California. They had been fighting over Colorado River water since the negotiations on the original compact in the 1920s. The ruling settled the water distribution from the Hoover Dam project and Nevada was guaranteed its 300,000 acre feet a year. But Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall wanted a regional water plan for the Southwest. It would cost more than a billion dollars. His plan for additional dams would surely cause controversy and delays. And Arizona’s senior U.S. senator, Carl Hayden, backed Udall—but Hayden’s support set off alarm bells among California’s congressional delegation. Nevada’s needs could get lost in a fight over what Udall and Hayden wanted.

Senator Alan Bible of Nevada was on the interior and appropriations committee, and close to President Lyndon Johnson. Bible’s colleague, Howard Cannon, wasn’t on the same committees, but also had a friendship with LBJ. They went to work rounding up support from Johnson and his aides. Bible got Hayden to agree not to hold Nevada hostage as part of the ongoing fight between Arizona and California. Bible and Cannon then co-sponsored a bill to underwrite a water delivery system with six pumping plants, a reservoir, a four-mile tunnel, and more than 31 miles of pipeline. The expected cost: 81 million dollars. The Senate easily approved it.

Then came trouble. Nevada’s lone congressman, Walter Baring, cherished his reputation as a maverick. He had broken with the Democratic party over John Kennedy’s New Frontier, and he opposed LBJ’s Great Society. House Democrats moved slowly, but finally approved the measure in early October.

Then came more trouble. LBJ really liked Bible and Cannon, and really hated Baring. The president considered vetoing the bill, but he knew the two senators were loyal friends and supporters of his. According to one aide, though, LBJ did decide to make them “sweat a little.” He signed the bill on October 25, 1965, at almost the last possible moment. He also said there would need to be another bill to clear up some of the language about interstate water rights. That annoyed Bible and Cannon a bit, but it was nothing they couldn’t handle.

They would have to keep fighting. Construction would require annual funding. The next year, the House cut some of the money out. Bible got it put back in. The year after that, LBJ froze all spending on public works, in response to the escalating costs of the Vietnam War and various poverty programs. Bible went to the White House at LBJ’s invitation. He made a list of items he wanted to get for Nevada. When he walked in, LBJ told him, “Don’t worry, I told those budget people to give my good friend Alan the money for that water project.” Bible told his biographer, Gary Elliott, that the list stayed in his pocket. The Southern Nevada Water Project’s first stage would be dedicated in 1971. Las Vegas would get the Lake Mead water it needed.

Nevada Yesterdays is written by Associate Professor Michael Green of UNLV, and narrated by former Senator Richard Bryan. Supported by Nevada Humanities