Weathering Change: Las Vegas Pipeline May Threaten West Desert's Scarce Water

07 March 2013
Published in Science and Society
Written by  Kim Schuske
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Weathering Change: Las Vegas Pipeline May Threaten West Desert's Scarce Water Citypeek-Wikimedia Commons

In the third part of our series, Weathering Change, we look at Utah's West Desert and the challenges people and the environment face with scare rainfall and snowmelt. 

Update (12/11/13): A Nevada judge ruled that 84,000 acre feet per year of water allocated for use by the Southern Nevada Water Authority will not be allowed to stand. Judge Robert Estes ruling requires the Nevada State Engineer to recalculate water rights taking into consideration groundwater discharge and recharge, as well as take into consideration the effect of groundwater drawdown on Millard and Juab Counties in Utah. 


In the arid high desert of western Utah, on the border between Utah and Nevada, water is a valuable commodity.

Seventh Judicial Court Water, in our language means healer of everything, says Rupert Steele. "For the American Indians, not only the Confederated Tribe of the Goshutes, but other Indians across the nation, water has always been worth more than gold and oil."

Steele is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshutes. He says streams, springs and groundwater in the area are critical for maintaining their ancestral lands, and the region's unique plants and animals.

"It is pretty and no matter where you go out there, you know we have close connections with the land out there. So, that's why you know it's a sacred area for us."

The Goshutes, along with ranchers and farmers who live in the West Desert, are concerned about developments that could upset the delicate balance that maintains their fragile lands. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has plans to build a pipeline to pump more than 27 billion gallons of groundwater out of Northern Nevada valleys, and ship it to Las Vegas. The Bureau of Land Management approved a right of way to build the pipeline last year.

For now, Snake Valley, which straddles Utah and Nevada, is spared from the project. Yet Steele worries that draining water from other nearby Nevada's valleys, could impact the entire region since there's some evidence the aquifers are connected.

"Transporting water from one place to another does not replenish or recharge the water system," says Steele. "You're taking water away from that place, and it's not going to come back. These are huge, seven foot diameter pipes. That takes a lot of water to fill a seven foot diameter pipe. And how many miles do you have? It's over three hundred miles, it's a long ways."

Agriculture and climate are already having an impact

Steve Erickson is a board member with the Great Basin Water Network that is fighting to keep Las Vegas from tapping northern Nevada groundwater. He says pumping water for agricultural use is already impacting the region's water.

"In fact we are seeing groundwater levels dropping," says Erickson. "It's a canary in the coalmine kind of a situation. When you see your seeps and springs declining, it's an indicator that you're drawing down the water table."

Because of concerns, in 2007 the Utah legislature funded a water monitoring project in the Snake Valley. Hugh Hurlow is with the Utah Geological Survey. He's tasked with measuring water levels in order to better understand the hydrology in the area. He says they found that some of the areas are very sensitive to climactic fluctuations.

"In the winter of 2010 and early 2011, there was a lot of snowfall," says Hurlow. "A very unusual amount for out there, and we saw groundwater levels the following spring rise by something like 8 to 10 feet. And now that we've had another dry year they've fallen back down almost to the levels where they were before that."

He adds that in other areas of Snake Valley, they have found that the water is old and there is very little recharge from winter runoff and rainfall. They calculate the age of the water using naturally occurring radioisotopes in the groundwater.

"Hydrogen has three different isotopes corresponding to different numbers of neutrons in the center of the atom," explains Hurlow. "And so the heaviest one with three is unstable over long amounts of time, so that there's less and less of that heavy isotope or large isotope. So we can measure the present concentration and back calculate the time that the atoms been in the groundwater."

Hurlow says they have found that water in different areas of the Snake Valley varies from younger than 50 years to over one thousand years old.

"You see very rare young water in the groundwater below the valley," says Hurlow. There's obviously young water in the mountains, in mountain springs and springs right on the edge of the mountains. But, in the deeper groundwater in the center of the basin, water younger than 50 years is very rare."

Hurlow says this suggests it takes a long time for the groundwater to be recharged in these areas.

Stopping the pipeline

According to Erickson, because the entire area is already sensitive to current use and fluctuations in weather, the added stress of a Las Vegas pipeline could create an environmental disaster.

"This one isn't going to be a permanent option. Once that water is depleted, it's ancient groundwater, it won't be replenished quickly," says Erickson. "It's a limited supply and it's a costly supply. There are better ways to go about solving their problems than this pipeline project."

It's not exactly clear what the impact would be in Snake Valley if Nevada decides to pump water from their northern valleys, but Erickson says they don't want to find out. They have filed legal action to challenge the pipeline.

"Legal action which we've taken against the Nevada state engineer against the allocation of water in four Nevada valleys," says Erickson. "We go to court this summer. And we'll also be filing suit against the Bureau of Land Management for their record of decision on the environmental analysis, the EIS [environmental impact statement] that was done. We think the BLM has made an improper decision and we'll challenge that."

The biggest short-term threat to Snake Valley is that there's no money to continue funding groundwater monitoring this year. $100,000 has been requested from the legislature to continue the project. The budget will be finalized next week.

Update: Governor Herbert says he will NOT sign a Snake Valley water agreement, which would allow Nevada to access Snake Valley aquifers. Listen to the story from KCPW.

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