The scarce water supply in Utah's West Desert is already impacted by agricultural use and fluctuations in weather. Some worry that a pipeline to Las Vegas would lead to an environmental disaster.
In the arid high desert of western Utah, on the border between Utah and Nevada, water is a valuable commodity.
"Water, in our language, we call it Pohaba, meaning healer of everything. 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," said Rupert Steele.
Steele is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshutes, and he said 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," Steele said.
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 ground water out of Northern Nevada valleys, and ship it to Las Vegas. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) 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. 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," said Steve Erickson.
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 impacts on the region’s water are already being seen from pumping for agricultural uses.
"In fact we are seeing ground water levels dropping. It’s a canary in the coal mine kind of a situation. When you see your seeps and springs declining, it’s an indicator that you’re drawing down the water table," Erickson said.
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.
"In the winter of 2010 and early 2011, there was a lot of snowfall," Erickson said. "Very unusual amount for out there, and we saw ground water 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 said in some areas the water levels are very sensitive to climatic fluctuations, and 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. And so the heaviest one with three is unstable over long amounts of time," Hurlow said. " 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 ground water."
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. There’s obviously young water in the mountains, in mountain springs and springs right on the edge of the mountains. But, in the deeper ground water in the center of the basin, water younger than 50 years is very rare."
Hurlow said this suggests it takes a long time for the groundwater to be recharged in these areas.
Erickson said, however, 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 ground water, it won’t be replenished quickly. 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," Erickson said.
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 said 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. We go to court this summer," Erickson said. "We’ll also be filing suit against the Bureau of Land Management for their record of decision on the environmental analysis, the EIS 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 ground water monitoring this year. 100 thousand dollars has been requested from the legislature to continue the project.
*Kim Schuske is a writer from EXPLORE Utah Science. The mission of EXPLORE Utah Science is to uncover science stories that matter to Utahns. EXPLORE was founded under the belief that the public needs to know about locally driven research, discoveries, and commercialization, and how these innovations could affect their health, the economy, and the future.