Environmentalists are warning that a plan to pipe billions of gallons of water a year from rural central Nevada nearly 300 miles to the Las Vegas metropolitan area will dry up wetlands and springs, damaging thousands of acres of wildlife habitat and potentially creating a "dust bowl" scenario.
At issue is the Bureau of Land Management's issuance last week of a final environmental impact statement for a proposal to build an underground pipeline to transport as much as 27 billion gallons of water a year to the Las Vegas Valley (Greenwire, Aug. 3).
Nevada State Engineer Jason King in March granted the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) the right to pump water from four rural valleys as far as 300 miles to the Las Vegas metro area, which currently gets 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River system's Lake Mead (ClimateWire, March 26).
A record of decision (ROD) granting final approval to the $15 billion pipeline project is expected in October, according to the SNWA, which called BLM's review of the pipeline proposal "the most comprehensive analysis ever conducted for a municipal water supply project."
SNWA says the project is necessary because southern Nevada has grown so much in recent years that the utility is not sure it can rely on the Colorado River, which has endured years of drought and growing water demand that have strained the delicate seven-state compact that allocates its water.
But Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the proposed project could cause "an epic environmental disaster" by draining groundwater levels and drying up springs and wetlands, pushing 25 species of Great Basin springsnails near extinction.
He also said that 14 species of desert fish such as the Moapa dace and the White River springfish would be negatively affected, as well as frogs and toads.
"Some of Nevada's rarest and most unique species rely on wetlands and springs," he said. "They've evolved over tens of thousands of years in response to isolation and fragmentation of habitat that occurred after ice ages. The Las Vegas water grab could undo all that and put them on a very real path toward extinction."
The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees issued a statement warning that draining water from the rural areas could create dry valleys that lead to dust storms, negatively affecting the nearby Great Basin National Park.
"While further review of the environmental impact report is needed, the National Parks Conservation Association remains deeply concerned about potential dust bowl conditions created by the water mining project, which would spoil Great Basin National Park's famed dark night skies, noted as the darkest in the lower 48 states," said Lynn Davis, NPCA's Nevada field office manager. "The threats of this water mining project are far reaching: It could be built at anguishing public expense, could dry up the area and plunder Great Basin National Park, threaten the region's rural life and create health issues that would multiply economic and social losses."
Davis said the NPCA is pleased that BLM's final EIS excluded transferring water out of the Snake Valley area on the Nevada-Utah border, on Great Basin National Park's eastern boundary.
"We are greatly relieved and grateful that the BLM's final preferred alternative excludes Snake Valley, one of the two valleys adjacent to Great Basin National Park," said Rick Smith, a member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees' executive council. "We remain concerned, however, about the project's impacts from Spring Valley pumping. As we stated earlier in our testimony to the Nevada State Engineer, not enough is yet known to be able to predict accurately the effects on Great Basin National Park resources. And we are concerned, if and when monitoring reveals a significant impact, it could be too late to mitigate the impact."
The coalition and NPCA are asking the Nevada State Engineer's office to permanently retire groundwater rights in Snake Valley, noting that U.S. EPA has also expressed concerns about dust emissions creating air quality problems as far away as Salt Lake City.
"The federal government's own scientists are confirming this Las Vegas water project would be an epic environmental disaster," said Mrowka, the Center for Biological Diversity ecologist. "It's really no exaggeration to say that the natural, cultural and social heritage of central Nevada is at grave risk from this project."
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.