Sunday, September 18, 2011

Rural Nevadans hope snails might slow the pace of Las Vegas pipeline

In order to fuel both the tourism industry and its astounding growth rate, Las Vegas needs water. Lots of it. And with Lake Mead's water levels continuing to drop, officials have put plans in motion to pump water from rural valleys throughout eastern Nevada and western Utah to Las Vegas.

This week, opponents of the pipeline project may have found a powerful ally in the form of snails. As reported by the Reno Gazette Journal, federal officials have agreed to take a look at 32 species of spring snails to determine whether they deserve special protection. This week's ruling was the first step in a long process to determine the status of the snails.

Opponents of the pipeline believe that federally protected snails might be the single biggest obstacle for the pipeline in future litigation. The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) claims that it has mitigation measures in place in the event that the snails are declared endangered species. However, it should be noted that snails are only a small part of the potential ecological impact of the pipeline. As outlined in this press release by the Center for Biological Diversity which petitioned on behalf of the snails, it is estimated that the pipeline would impact "305 springs, 112 miles of streams, 8,000 acres of wetlands and 191,506 acres of shrubland wildlife habitat."

Even if SNWA can overcome the challenges posed by snails and other native species, there would seem to be plenty of other stumbling blocks along the way. One estimate suggests that removing water from the state's underground aquifer might cause some 525 square miles of land to subside more than 5 feet and could lead to the generation of 34,742 tons of windblown dust each year. This is in addition to the potential for the project's cost to spiral out of control as reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

At the heart of the debate lies a fundamental disagreement over the best use of Nevada's water resources. As reported by NPR, Patricia Mulroy, SNWA's general manager, has stated "ninety percent of Nevada's water goes to agriculture and generates 6,000 jobs, which is less than the Mirage Hotel generates." She continued, "the West was settled by the federal government as an agrarian economy (but) it isn't that anymore …The West is becoming an urban area." Rural residents feel differently. One resident of Snake Valley along the Nevada-Utah border said, "without water, even [with] decreased water, the future's going to go away." Ms. Mulroy would argue that the future lies in Las Vegas and its tourist destinations rather than in the fields and pastures around towns like Baker, Nevada.

Even if there is enough water to go around as Ms. Mulroy suggests, it is unlikely that this argument will be put to rest anytime soon. As Ms. Mulroy points out, "there's a cultural gap. There's a rural-urban gap." It is doubtful that the rural and urban residents of Nevada will ever agree on the most effective way to divvy up the state's limited water resources. The snails are simply a side-show in a much larger culture war in Nevada.

For more background on Las Vegas' water issues and the proposed pipeline project, see the Las Vegas Sun's special reports here.


Namora said...

This story almost perfectly parallels a water/culture war that has been taking place in California for the last several decades. But, in California the war is being waged over how to best use/dam/divert the water in the Delta. The farmers, many of them large corporate farms, are waging a war to get more water delivered. In their campaigns they paint themselves as poor rural family farmers. And instead of a snail, the Delta smelt, a small silver fish, is the most cited reason for environmental concern. If the Nevada situation plays out anything like that in California, it might take many years.

JLS said...

What I find so fascinating about these kinds of debates is the framing of the issue. I went to an event in Reno last year that had Patricia Mulroy as one of the speakers. She spoke mostly about conservation and appropriate use of resources. I have also heard her argue that the large hotel-casinos use water more responsibly because they recycle shower water for the plants, fountains, etc.

On the other hand, in his excellent book, Lasso the Wind ( Timothy Egan portrays her as a bit ruthless and claims that people call her the "Water Witch of the West." That book was written in 1999, and even then the smaller Nevada towns were worrying about how to stand up to Las Vegas.

I also wonder--beyond the snails and the ballooning costs--with the recession slowing Las Vegas' growth, will the pipeline even be necessary?