Monday, March 5, 2007

Jim Deacon takes on the Water Grab

If you live in or near Las Vegas, you've heard for years that growth is just what the doctor ordered -- Dr. Feelgood, that is, always ready to feed that addiction. Problem is, we’ve come splat up against the wall limiting growth: the scarce natural resources of the Mojave Desert.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority says what we need is an injection of tasty, growth-abetting water from our neighbors in east-central Nevada. It’s called the water grab, and it threatens wildlife, agriculture and ranching throughout a huge area, from central Utah to Death Valley in California, and lots of Nevada in between.
What are the implications of the water grab? Dr. Jim Deacon, a UNLV scientist who is one of the top researchers on desert biology, recently submitted written testimony to the Nevada Assembly. Here is the full text of his testimony:

Discussions of the effects of the proposed Southern Nevada water project often lead to assurances that Owens Valley-like consequences can't happen today because our environmental laws, and the criteria that must be used by the State Engineer are sufficient to prevent those consequences. There is relatively little discussion about what the probable consequences are. To date there is one comprehensive study, published by USGS in 1995, that attempts to evaluate the effect of the SNWA groundwater project on the regional groundwater table. It concludes that if the only draw on the regional aquifer was the 180,800 acre-feet per year sought by SNWA, there would be a noticeable decline in the groundwater table extending approximately from Death Valley California to Sevier Lake Utah. The decline from about Indian Springs to Baker, Nevada would probably exceed 50 feet, and in some areas could reach 1600 feet.

This means that everyone dependent on groundwater for domestic, agricultural, commercial, or municipal uses throughout the region would realize an increase in cost of living or the cost of doing business. Furthermore, throughout the region, springs, wetlands, and phreatophytes (plants whose roots must reach groundwater to survive), would decline in proportion to the local extent of the groundwater decline. Varying degrees of jeopardy therefore would fall on 3 Nevada State Wildlife Management Areas, 4 Federal Wildlife Refuges, 2 National Parks, 3 National Recreation Areas, 20 listed endangered species, 137 unlisted spring dependent endemic species, and 347 sensitive species in the Nevada Natural Heritage Database.

Can these consequences be prevented?
Nevada water law is considered among the best in the U.S. from the standpoint of ensuring sustainable use. It requires the State Engineer to protect prior rights, ensure that water rights are put to beneficial use, are not detrimental to the public interest, and do not result in mining of groundwater. The State Engineer usually attempts to estimate "perennial yield" as a primary basis of avoiding mining. In a given basin, allocation of 100% of perennial yield, under ideal circumstances, would dry up all springs and wetlands, kill all phreatophytes, and stop all underground flow to other basins. Water previously serving those purposes would be pumped into a pipe to be used for domestic, agricultural, commercial, or municipal purposes. That is substantially what has already happened in Las Vegas Valley, Pahrump Valley, and other areas in Nevada where demand for urban uses is high.

It's important to remember that the USGS study projected probable impacts based on the assumption that the 180,800 acre-feet per year SNWA says it wants would be the only draw on the regional aquifer. That amount constitutes about 25% of the estimated perennial yield throughout the area of Nevada potentially impacted. SNWA applications actually added up to more than 330,000 acre-feet per year when I examined the State Engineer's records in February 2006. And of course, the SNWA groundwater project will not be the only draw on the aquifer. As of February 2006, rights had already been granted for 730,587 acre-feet (102% of perennial yield), and applications in addition to those submitted by SNWA amounted to 883,860 acre-feet. This suggests the virtual certainty that, as in the past, the State Engineer is likely to approve rights to considerably more than 100% of perennial yield. Consequences therefore are likely to exceed those projected by the 1995 USGS study.

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