Stay the course on water plan

On Aug. 20, Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, will ask her newly constituted board of directors to again voice support for the outfit’s proposed central Nevada pipeline project, designed to supplement the drought-stricken Colorado River by delivering 50,000 acre-feet of water per year as a secondary source for Las Vegas.

A “whole new assault to kill the willingness of Southern Nevada to build this project” is currently underway, Ms. Mulroy warns.

Stimulus for the new “no-growth” push comes from the fact that Nevada may be close to signing an agreement with the state of Utah over division of water rights in the Snake Valley, which straddles the Utah state line in east central Nevada. The Snake is the furthest northeast source from which the authority now envisions piping the state-controlled resource.

Alarmists in Utah tell the Salt Lake Tribune they fear the 285-mile pipeline could “dry up the valley around Great Basin National Park, limiting development and sending dust storms toward Utah’s Wasatch Front.”

Residents certainly have a right to continue to review whether this project is needed in light of slowed urban growth in Southern Nevada — especially should Western Slope rainfall and thus the level of the Colorado River begin to recover. It’s also within reason to question whether the authority– intentionally or not — has “low-balled” the cost of construction, recently estimated at $3.5 billion.

But no court is going to tell Nevada it can’t have any of the water that flows east out of Nevada into Utah’s portion of the Snake Valley. The most a challenge could achieve is some different formula for division.

Meantime, Ms. Mulroy points out, “Every time a big outfit goes to the bankers” to finance a development in this valley, “they call us; they want to see the resource plan.” If the authority is forced to revise that plan to show a “worst case” continuation of Colorado River subsidence, without a concrete schedule to draw additional water from the northeast pipeline, “The banks will go crazy,” she warns, possibly refusing to finance any further growth or construction in this valley.

That’s just fine with a “solid core of 25 percent” of local residents, says Ms. Mulroy, branding this minority “hard-core no-growthers.” They like the current economic slump “just fine,” she says. “No growth is their end objective.”

For most of the rest of us, the vision of a no-growth Las Vegas on view for the past year or two — home foreclosures, business shut-downs, high unemployment and under-employment, even many surviving businesses adopting survival strategies which make them resemble desert frogs buried in the mud — has been neither pretty nor desirable.

Yes, in theory, any urban center can eventually “max out,” reaching a size beyond which further unrestricted growth can do more harm than good.

But even those who believe the community should take control of and limit the pace of future growth may want to review what it could truly mean to watch the Colorado at Lake Mead — down some 120 feet in the past decade — drop from the current 1,094 feet above sea level to 1,050 feet and beyond.

Somewhere between 1,083 and 1,050 feet, Hoover Dam will stop generating electricity, cutting off the current source for Boulder City and putting a considerable dent in supplies for Southern California. If the lake continues dropping beyond that, the valley could face rationing.

The sailing will not be smooth, even if the sensible majority orders “full speed ahead” for planning and permitting. The green extreme will almost certainly attempt to use the courts to delay the project.

The end of 2010 is the current target date for the authority to have all necessary permits “signed, sealed, and on the shelf,” leaving them ready to build the central Nevada pipeline “on demand.” At that point, “You still don’t have to build it, but it’s ready to go if you need it,” Ms. Mulroy says. Even then, it would take two years to build the pipe — setting aside the inevitable wack-job lawsuits.

At the very least, as a matter of basic stewardship, Southern Nevadans should demand that the project be brought to that state of readiness, as soon as possible, to be prepared for whatever may transpire. You can’t live in the desert without water.

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