Governor Gary Herbert is close to making a decision on whether to sign an agreement that would authorize the construction of a pipeline from the Snake Valley in Utah’s West Desert to Las Vegas Nevada. But activists say signing the agreement could spell environmental doom.
If you look at a satellite map of Utah, the Snake Valley – which runs north to south and straddles the Nevada border – appears –for the most part, to be bone-dry. But here and there, ranches and small communities dot the map… The Goshute Indian Reservation skirts the valley’s northern edge and small patches of green stick out like oases in the Sahara.
Governor Gary Herbert has said that in the coming days he will decide whether or not to sign an agreement that would allow a pipeline to tap this already-arid valley to fuel the further development of the city of Las Vegas, Nevada.
But there are many who say that building this pipeline will have devastating environmental consequences – and not just for the ranchers, indigenous people and wildlife who call this valley home.
Doctor Brian Moench, of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment said he believes Wasatch Front residents should be worried as well.
“That aquifer sustains the native vegetation of the area. And if those aquifers are dropped as models have shown, would be dropped a couple hundred feet…that will kill off that critical desert vegetation creating a literal dustbowl," Moench said. "We already have dust storms from the west desert. In fact the highest levels of particulate air pollution ever recorded in Salt Lake City have been during dust storms from the west desert – not during our inversions. So we’ve already seen that…but we’re going to see a lot more of it if this water project goes through.”
The dispute over whether to build the pipeline is already nearly 10 years old. In 2004, Congress ordered Utah and Nevada to reach an agreement over the Snake Valley’s water resources, and the two states eventually agreed to a 50/50 split water sharing accord. But in 2010, after the Millard County Commission and then Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon expressed concerns over the proposal, Governor Herbert delayed signing the agreement.
But the Southern Nevada Water Authority has continued to press for his signature, even threatening to sue the state of Utah over the delay.
At the Governor’s monthly TV news conference on KUED on Thursday, Herbert said that he was closing in on a decision, but that it was a difficult one. He also defended the concept of the agreement, with a sort of caveat.
“The agreement’s designed to say – here’s the agreement we have between the states – and a way to monitor and maybe have some triggers that would maybe help us stop them from pumping additional water and causing degradation to water rights and the environment. I can promise you all that my goal is very clear, we will not give up one molecule of water to Nevada,” Herbert said.
Madeleine Greymountain, Vicechair of the Confederate Tribes of the Goshute Indian Reservation saidthat the pipeline would have detrimental effects on the Goshute’s ancestral home.
“Most tribal leaders including myself – we think in terms of generations. We know that the decisions that we make today will effect my children’s children’s children. We have to think along those lines," Greymountain said. "Whereas we know that Las Vegas – or the Southern Nevada Water Authority was buying up huge properties along that corridor, our reservation is not for sale. We plan on existing there for eternity. And we’ve been there in existence since before Columbus landed his feet here. And we’re still continuing to protect it. And we’re not going away.”
UPR was unable to reach the Southern Nevada Water Authority for comment, but they have stated in previous interviews that the federally-mandated agreement requires strict monitoring, and forces them to mitigate environmental damages caused by the pipeline. Opponents counter that its unlikely that once the pipeline is turned on – that water-dependent Las Vegas will agree to then simply turn it off.
On Thursday night, a coalition of environmental organizations opposed to the pipeline held an informational event at the offices of Hawkwatch International. Zach Frankel, Executive Director of the Utah Rivers Council, said that the cost of the pipeline meant that the project was almost unbuildable – and that therefore the Governor shouldn’t feel pressured to sign the agreement.
“Las Vegas will have to pay $30.1 billion dollars for this water project, OK? Las Vegas is not going to be building this project any time soon. So then, what is the enormous pressure the governor's office is worried about? This agreement is a travesty. I have no reservations. We should not sign it. Period," Frankel said.
Environmentalists plan to deliver a letter to Herbert on Friday urging him to forgo the water deal between two of nation’s driest states.