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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Desert Thirst

Air Date: Week of

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In recent years, scientists have learned more about a huge body of ancient water deep below America's Great Basin in Utah and Nevada. Las Vegas says it needs the water but some wildlife officials worry that removing it will dry up springs on which desert life depends. Ky Plaskon reports.


GELLERMAN: Of course, droughts are nothing new in the vast deserts of Utah, Nevada and a good chunk of Southern California. It's where streams from hundreds of mountain ranges drain inland and seep into the ground. It's called America's Great Basin and the water underground has been there for thousands of years. But now, sprawling Las Vegas wants to tap into this subterranean reservoir to quench its growing demand for water. From Nevada Public Radio Ky Plaskon reports.

PLASKON: The desert runs unchanged for hundreds of miles north of Las Vegas until White Pine County. This time of year, trees shade patches of snow.


PLASKON: The town of Elys is nestled in this forest near Great Basin National Park. On this day, protesters stand in the cold outside Elys Community Center.

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

PLASKON: Las Vegas water representatives held an open house recently here to open a dialog about their plan--drill up to 190 wells and pipe millions of gallons of water to Las Vegas.

GARRETT: I am Jo Anne Garrett and I live out in Baker. And my feeling is that from knowing a lot of people who live in Las Vegas is that no one is in charge down there and they have ruined their own environment. And in order to keep on with no plan for curbing their growth, they are now going to ruin our environment by taking our water and so it's not a good idea.

PLASKON: While many would disagree that Las Vegas' environment is ruined, the city does pump groundwater faster than it is replenished, drying up springs including rare artesian wells. As a result, the ground has collapsed around some wells and in one place, a square mile near an orchard dropped six feet. To stop more of the city from sinking, Las Vegas now imports water and pumps it back into the earth in what it says is the largest injection program in the world. But officials eased restrictions on water use last year. Water use remains the highest in the nation, 230 gallons per person, per day, according to the group Western Resource Advocates. It's not a fair comparison though, say water officials because the average is driven up by Vegas' 30 million annual visitors. To serve an anticipated doubling of the population Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager, says the city must have more water and the Great Basin is the best place to get it.

MULROY: The state of Nevada has a lot of groundwater basins that have never been explored and many of these basins have unused, unappropriated water in it. The way the west is exploding, the state of Nevada cannot afford any longer to not know how much water can safely be developed and until we drill wells and we stress the system we will not know.


PLASKON: At the meeting in Ely, a bearded man in a cowboy hat stands off to the side.

LEED: Taking it in.

PLASKON: Curt Leed watches a dozen Las Vegas water representatives surrounded by displays.

LEED: I wish they'd just halt growth down there in Vegas. I mean, back in 75 they knew it was really fast growing and it's the driest climate of any big city in the country. And its still growing like that they just need to limit the number of building permits. I mean there is no need to rape and pillage this country up here.

PLASKON: At a round table in the center of the room, Water Authority Deputy
General Manager Kay Brothers is trying to console worried residents.

BROTHERS: Under the water law and under the way the state allocates water, there is considered to be, by the state, unappropriated water to be developed. And that is what we think we are doing. We certainly don't want to dry you up or take your water.

PLASKON: She lets them debate.

RESIDENT1: If they tap the water in Snake Valley, they don't know the source of that water that is feeding that valley.

BROTHERS: Okay, Now my question is, since you are saying that, what is the solution to it?

RESIDENT1: Get the hell out of here.

GROUP: (laughter)

BROTHERS: Now, that is not a realistic solution.

RESIDENT1: Why not?

BROTHERS: Because that's not gonna to happen. You're not living in the real world.

PLASKON: The perspective that there is extra water is based partly on United States Geologic Survey reports dating back 40 years. The USGS is respected for its science. Hydrologist Dan Bright of the Survey says back when the studies were done, water used by plants and animals at oases and springs was considered extra water.

BRIGHT: And there has been a paradigm shift. It's a different philosophy now.

PLASKON: Today, the agency believes water, once considered available, is actually being used by plants and animals at springs. Bright says water experts don't always know how groundwater pumping affects springs. To help others understand, they draw the image of a great bathtub called the "carbonate aquifer." It stretches from Utah, including all of Nevada and a slice of California.

BRIGHT: The bathtub, in a simplistic way, represents the carbonate aquifer. The water leaking over the edge of the tub represents discharge from the numerous springs in Nevada. If you lower the level of the water in the tub, what happens--you may potentially stop water from leaking over the edge of the tub.

PLASKON: Many of these leaks or oasis are protected in national parks and refuges across the basin. Refuge managers from California to Utah are keeping an eye on Las Vegas' plans.


PLASKON: At one of the refuges, 70 miles north of Las Vegas, clear tranquil pools bubble from the ground to form the gray waters of the Muddy River. The water's warm because it's old, having flowed deep in the earth for possibly millennia. Under the shade of a palm tree a translucent minnow with a little black spot on its tail darts through the water. The Moapa Dace survives only in this water. It's one of more than 80 species, including 16 endangered ones that depend on springs across the basin. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has pledged to protect the habitat.


PLASKON: But deep drilling has already begun upstream of the oasis. The water will be used to supply a new golf course. For Living on Earth, I'm Ky Plaskon.

[MUSIC: Esther "Little Dove" John "Ocean Bossa" The Elements Vol. II (Dove-Paloma) 1994]



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