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BLM’s new “alternative” on Vegas pipe

by Emily Green Friday, Aug. 03, 2012 at 11:33 AM

Ever heard of the Council on Environmental Quality? Chaired by former LA Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley, it’s a White House office that according to its website ”coordinates Federal environmental efforts.” To judge by a recent update from the Bureau of Land Management, Sutley’s office may just hold the key for a compromise in a long-running battle over rural groundwater between Utah and Nevada. Using powers supposedly afforded by the Council, the Bureau is adding a new alternative to an environmental impact statement that may allow Vegas to pump and Utah to keep its water too. The only clear loser is the environment.

The suggested compromise comes after eight years of work by the Bureau parsing right-of-way issues for a 300-mile pipeline proposed by Las Vegas, which plans to tap groundwater from a series of rural basins in Eastern Central Nevada. The most voracious pumping is planned for Spring Valley at the foot of the Great Basin National Park, with the second most fecund target being the adjacent Snake Valley, on the Utah border. A year-round glacier on Mt Wheeler in the national park feeds both valleys.

Read the massive Bureau report — still in draft stage — and any reasonable person would declare the Vegas pipe idea madder than Sharron Angle, and twice as stupid. Drain fragile rural valleys vital to agriculture, wildlife and migrating birds so Steve Wynn can have dolphinariums in the desert? Send water from places that left alone might be able to weather climate change to the southernmost desert region that is already, with very little competition, one of the least hospitable environments in the US? Sap an aquifer that is deeply entwined with river systems, including the already over-allocated Colorado? Proceed with this against the advice of almost every hydrologist to look on it who wasn’t on Vegas’s payroll? Do this knowing that the mitigation costs alone could dwarf the billion-plus dollars paid by Los Angeles to suppress dust caused by its pumps in the Eastern Sierra? Do this to support more housing tracts in Las Vegas, even though it is already synonymous with the crash and the repossession capital of America?

As required by logic and form, the Bureau did include an option for quashing the project as one of the studied “alternatives.” Yet few imagine that the smartest option will receive serious consideration. Across both major political parties, across all fifty states, all but a handful of Utah politicians are either for the plan or agnostic or just plain cowering. Politicians whose constituents won’t benefit directly with new housing projects or casinos in Vegas still benefit indirectly. The avenues are many, from donations by casino owners and home-builders, to the ability to get a bill through the US Senate. Love Sheldon Adelson’s money and you better love Sheldon Adelson’s needs. Many know that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is from Nevada; in fact, he was raised in Las Vegas and during the last two decades has become political godfather of the pipeline scheme. If you want his help, he expects yours.

Using sticks, carrots and bald threats, back in 2009, Reid had the Beehive state on board to permit Vegas pumps in Snake Valley until it dawned on increasing numbers of Utahns that Salt Lake is upwind of a series of dust storms likely to result from the pumping. When the Vegas pipe briefly suffered a series of legal reversals to do with its state water awards, Utah seized the opportunity to rebel.

That was then. Vegas has since bought the kind of justice it wanted in the form of fresh water awards from the Nevada State Engineer. As the BLM nears the end of its long, often damning study as to the inevitable impacts posed to public land by Vegas pumps, federal agencies beholden to Reid’s congress have become increasingly desperate for a way to again get fractious Utahns in line. Lo, some bright spark seems to have realized that the president’s office has the authority to tweak the environmental impact statement. A month shy of the final report eight years in preparation, this is late in the game, yes, but not too late to add an alternative to the menu of options! If Utah’s problem is Vegas turning Snake Valley into a dustbowl, take it off the table! (It can always be put back on it.)

What’s more, the difficulty factor was negligible. After Vegas’s legal reversals and the Utah rebellion in 2009-10, Snake Valley had already been put temporarily out of play.

The final Bureau environmental impact statement is due out next month, and it seems likely that the chosen alternative will be some form of this suggested new Kool-Aid for Utah. The Bureau’s update adding the recipe to the mix even has numbers as to how much water will be conveyed across federal land by Vegas (84,370 acre feet of water per year from Spring Valley, 6,591 from Delamar Valley, 11,584 from Dry Lake Valley and 11,584 from Cave Valley).

Utahns still might wonder what will stop Nevadan dust from blowing into Salt Lake air, or if Nevadan pumping will still lower the water table in Utah. Pumping in these basins will still drain land adjacent to the Great Basin National Park. Vegas has offered no proof of funds to pay for mitigation if it ruins the flow of the White River or dries up the oases of the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, perhaps because no one imagines that damage so heartbreaking and catastrophic could be mitigated.

If this sounds like Obama-bashing, it’s not. His fault here is being just as short-sighted and subject to cash politics as his predecessor. There’s no right political party on this issue, only two wrong ones. Perhaps the most reprehensible element about this notional win-win alternative for Nevada and Utah is that the loser is the Great Basin and we are to believe that the rationale for the compromise comes from the National Environmental Policy Act.

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