The little guys may have won one
Eastern Nevadans recently received wonderful news in the form of a judicial decision that validated their right to retain water needed to nurture a rural lifestyle of ranching, outdoor leisure, and the happiness of generations.
While some in Southern Nevada sputtered that it was their right and duty to grab the water needed to feed the insatiable growth of the Las Vegas Valley, many environmentalists and lovers of rural Nevada breathed a deep sigh of relief, albeit a temporary one, remembering the lessons of the Owens Valley whose water fed the sprawl now known as Los Angeles.
Nevada has been facing its own rural water grab over the past 25 years as the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) has waged a multi-million dollar battle against rural residents and environmentalists over a 300-mile pipeline of water, now budgeted north of $15 billion.
SNWA insists the water is needed to sustain Las Vegas, a city dependent for its drinking water on the dwindling Colorado River, a source coveted by surrounding states as well. It must have seemed a lot easier to battle a handful of rural Nevadans than take on the legal behemoths of California or Arizona over who has the rights and deserves the water from the Colorado.
But in a recent judicial decision, against all odds, the little guys prevailed.
Judge Robert Estes of the 7th Judicial District rejected the pipeline plans in a ruling issued on Dec. 11, citing flaws in official findings from the state water engineer. He employed unusually strong language in his ruling, saying the state’s top water official was “arbitrary” and “capricious” in his findings, which were “not in the public interest.” The judge also expressed concerns that the pipeline would rob “future generations” of water resources, saying it’s clear that no one knows for sure how much damage the plan would inflict on the fragile basin and range ecosystem.
SNWA’s response was of the “trust us, we know what we’re doing” variety, despite the Owens Valley experience. Officials shrugged off the adverse decision, praising the judge for leaving many of their arguments in favor of the water grab intact.
The ruling means the state water engineer will have to do more studies to calculate how much water can safely be pumped from the four valleys in Eastern Nevada without damaging the environment irreparably or diminishing the water rights of other holders, including those downstream in Utah.
The Great Basin Water Network, an alliance of citizens, ranchers, local governments and other interested parties, was ecstatic with the victory against the seemingly unstoppable SNWA. In a press release, representatives called the ruling “a huge victory for the families and communities of these rural valleys in Nevada and Utah, and a vindication of our collective efforts to resist a massively misguided and destructive project.” They called for SNWA to abandon the multi-billion dollar project and look elsewhere for the water to quench Las Vegas’ thirst.
Rob Mrowka, senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, added his voice to the cry for SNWA to reconsider its position: “Rather than robbing the desert of its precious little water, we should be looking at sustainable ways for Las Vegas to live within its means without destroying the environment and rural communities.”
SNWA is not going to give up, of course. But neither are the people of Eastern Nevada, who have a history of speaking truth to power. Consider the MX missile project driven by the military industrial complex that everyone said was inevitable. It wasn’t, thanks to many of the same people now resisting the pipeline.
It’s certainly fair to describe the conflict over the water grab as a David vs. Goliath situation. But remember who won that one.