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Wrangling over water is commonplace in this desert community. And for more than a half-century as a county water boss, Wayne Wilson has been in the middle of most disputes.

"We've had one or two people killed over water. One time we had someone try to kill another guy with a shovel because he took his irrigation water 10 minutes too soon," Wilson recalled.But none of the countless squabbles Wilson has mediated compare to the large-scale water war looming in this arid region of the country.

"This is the big one," the 87-year-old retired fruit farmer predicted.

So far, the "big one" involves three states, two of the fastest- growing communities in the West, influential environmental groups, powerful water agencies and a dozen federal agencies.

They all want a piece of the Virgin River - a silty, salty waterway with the distinction of being one of the few free-flowing rivers in the West and the only Colorado River tributary that hasn't been divided among its users.

The battle could pull in a few more states, a foreign country, Indian tribes, Congress and possibly the federal courts. It could take years to resolve, but observers say the Virgin River's eventual allocation could set the standards for Western water use and rural development into the next century.

The time has come

It was only a matter of time before the region's water users would have to lay legal claim on the Virgin River.

Utah officials asked the U.S. Supreme Court to allocate the river in 1960 as part of the court's ruling in the landmark Arizona vs. California water dispute. The case addressed allocation of Colorado River tributaries in Arizona and Nevada. But the court's special master assigned to the case said there was no (current) fight over the Virgin River, so he didn't allocate it.

It seemed a reasonable decision at that time. St. George was a sleepy rural community of 5,000. The closest community of any size was Las Vegas, which lay outside the Virgin River basin and had what its leaders thought was more than enough water in nearby Lake Mead.

Thirty years later, both cities and the surrounding communities have exploded in population. St. George makes up more than 30,000 of Washington County's 48,560 residents, and Las Vegas accounts for most of southern Nevada's 740,000 population. In another 30 years, demographers predict Washington County's population will exceed 136,000 and southern Nevada will top 1 million.

Virgin River water gets more scarce when plans are thrown in for a half-dozen golf courses in nearby Littlefield, Ariz., while the Nevada community of Mesquite continues to grow. Added to the mix are controversial water-right claims by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Shivwits Indian band and U.S. Forest Service. Add the effect of endangered species in the drainage, and the demands of powerful environmental groups are expected to soak up even more water.

It wasn't until 1989, when the Las Vegas Valley Water District applied for rights to nearly 70,000 acre-feet of Virgin River water, that water managers and environmentalists woke up to the obvious scenario of unlimited demand on a very limited resource.

"We created quite a bit of hoopla," district general manager Pat Mulroy recalled.

Southern Nevada expects to run out of water for its growing population by 2007 unless it finds new sources. No one expected that to happen in 1929, when the state opted for a paltry 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water, compared to the millions of acre-feet allotted to other states. An acre-foot of water meets the annual water needs of an average household of four.

"Las Vegas was nothing more than a railroad town then, and most of the population was in the northern half of the state where the decisions were made," Mulroy noted.

Las Vegas has implemented an aggressive water conservation program to stretch its limited water supply. But to quench the area's thirst through 2050, the Las Vegas water district has targeted the Virgin River and northern Nevada groundwater. The district has filed for water rights to the river and groundwater. In March, it applied for another 113,000 acre-feet of Virgin River water.

Seeking leverage

Utah water officials aren't overly concerned about Nevada's designs on the Virgin. State Water Resources chief Larry Anderson said southern Utah appears safe in securing its share because the river's headwaters are in Utah and its biggest users are in Washington County.

"All the control of the water is in Utah," Anderson said, though Nevada is entitled to an unspecified amount because the river flows through that state, too.

But the Washington County Water Conservancy District is hedging its bets and wants increased leverage when parties begin serious negotiations.

"We all look at Las Vegas with a suspicious eye," said district manager Ron Thompson. "They want to be the big fish in the little pond. They certainly are the richest."

Wilson, now retired from his influential posts in state and local water politics, shares Thompson's suspicions. "Big sometimes whips little, and Washington County couldn't furnish a legal battle with Nevada," he said.

The fight won't necessarily change Utah's existing rights to the river's base flows. "The fight is going to be over the surpluses flowing from March to June," he added.

If Washington County can capture the spring runoff behind dams soon, it will strengthen its claim when negotiations begin. So the district has moved Virgin River development to the top of its priority list, applying for additional water rights and dusting off old proposals identifying 20 dam sites along the Virgin and its tributaries to store spring runoffs.

But outmaneuvering Nevada isn't the only challenge. Several proposed dam sites are above Zion National Park. That has the National Park Service and environmental groups concerned.

Government foes

In fact, Anderson believes differences with the federal government and environmentalists, not southern Nevada, pose the biggest obstacles to developing enough water for southern Utah.

"Right now, federal landowners have tied up development of the river," he said.

An example is Zion, sitting squarely between the Virgin's headwaters and a population of water users. The Park Service has claimed an unspecified amount of "reserved rights" to the river to preserve the park's integrity. Park Service officials are negotiating with the state on exactly how much is needed.

To avoid conflicts with the park and environmentalists, the district selected a site on North Creek below the park. But just last week, the BLM nixed that dam because it would sit on an old oil field, which could pollute the water supply.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting a study to determine how much water it needs to maintain wildlife and vegetation along the river. Other standards federal agencies must uphold along the river include the Endangered Species Act, designated and proposed wilderness lands, and wild and scenic river designations.

In Utah, the Virgin drainage encompasses eight endangered species involving plants, insects, fish or animals, and 26 more are candidates for protection. More than 200,000 surrounding acres are either wilderness or proposed wilderness. And the BLM is floating a proposal to designate 31 sections of either the Virgin or its tributaries as wild and scenic.

Any one of these federal protections can thwart Virgin River development - a possibility not lost on environmentalists. Their strategy is to make sure each federal agency applies every conceivable existing rule and law to limit development and keep the Virgin as wild and natural as possible.

"Protection is paramount because the Virgin is the lifeblood to (the) biologically diverse . . . Colorado Plateau, Mojave Desert and Sonoran Desert ecosystems," said Ken Rait of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA).

Although the river passes through three states, SUWA is pushing for managing the river as a single resource. To that end it is not limiting its fight to Utah.

It supports the American Rivers, an organization based in Washington, D.C., which ranks the Virgin among its top 10 endangered rivers, and is pushing for wild and scenic designation in Arizona. SUWA also backs a BLM filing in Arizona for the Virgin's entire flow to protect wildlife resources along the river.

And SUWA has filed protests to Las Vegas's $900 million diversion plan, claiming it could threaten endangered fish. The proposal would store southern Nevada's allocation in a reservoir at Halfway Wash, divert it to a desalting plant, then pipe the treated water to Las Vegas.

But southern Nevada water manager Mulroy said if she had her choice, she wouldn't build a costly desalting plant, reservoir and pipelines. The preferred alternative would allow the water to continue flowing into Lake Mead where the salt content would be diluted naturally. Nevada's share would then be siphoned out through an existing pipeline to Las Vegas.

Another cost-effective option involves purchasing or leasing unused Colorado River water allocations from other states, including Utah.

`Law of the River'

Both options sound alarms among Colorado River managers. They say such arrangements violate the "Law of the River."

The ominous-sounding term refers to a group of compacts, agreements, treaties and court rulings dating to the 1920s that have governed Colorado River water uses. And the seven states with a piece of the Colorado have different opinions on what "Law of the River" means.

Mulroy and Tom Cahill, director of the Colorado River Commission of Nevada, believe the law is flexible and can change to allow leasing and water exchanges among states. They appear to have Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on their side. In speeches and interviews, Babbitt has openly advocated changing and adapting the "Law of the River" to accommodate southern Nevada.

But Utah's Anderson is reluctant to lease Utah's future water supply to Nevada. "What happens when the lease is up and we need the water? We can't just cut (Nevada's) supply off . . . (and) we aren't going to dry up so Nevada can continue to grow," he vowed.

Meantime, Southern California water lords also refer to the "Law of the River" when making their case against Nevada routing its Virgin River water through Lake Mead. The lake is considered part of the Colorado's mainstem, and the law says "to take water out of the mainstem of the Colorado, you need a contract with the secretary of Interior," said Jerry Zim-merman, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California.

Unlike his counterparts in other states, Zimmerman believes Virgin River water belongs to the Colorado River and is subject to the Colorado River Compact, a congressionally ratified seven-state (Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico) treaty dividing the river's flow and allocating an amount to Mexico. And he intends to sit at the negotiating table if and when a Virgin River compact is hammered out.

Excluding California, approved rights and applications for additional water far exceed the Virgin River's annual average flow (see chart).

Undeterred, Zimmerman indicated his state may go to court to ensure its share of Virgin River water. "Is the water supply for 500,000-plus people worth fighting for?" he said, when asked to what lengths his state would go.

Pandora's box

If California wants in, the other Colorado River Compact players won't want to be left out.

"If a compact (on the Virgin River) is reached, it will likely be used by the other states as leverage to achieve changes in allocation of the (Colorado) river and in the rules governing its water use," said Tom Jensen, a water lawyer who formerly worked for the U.S. Senate and is now executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust, which champions preservation of the Colorado Plateau.

As interstate compacts require congressional ratification, that means more parties getting involved. Jensen predicts political wheeling and dealing among water managers, national environmental groups and affected local Indian tribes.

"Anything involving Congress is very difficult," Jensen said. But not so difficult that it can't be worked out, he added.

"We have a chance here to do it right - to find a sustainable balance between a community's legitimate desire for economic well-being and a shared need for a healthy, productive environment."

Water and other natural resources are increasingly under pressure as more people flee crowded cities for a quieter, rural lifestyle, Jensen said. "Washington County is particularly important because the growth there is on the same order that will come throughout the rural areas of the West and the Colorado plateau."

Environmentalists have had their way in several recent water development projects in Colorado, Utah and Nevada, so the precedents have already been set, according to Rait.

"The Virgin River is an opportunity to show we have learned something," he said.

Water developers are quiet on the changes Virgin River negotiations could bring. But Jensen cited the recent congressional authorization of the $2 billion Central Utah Project as evidence that water developers and environmentalists can strike a balance.

"That bodes well for a similar embrace of reasonable change elsewhere in the state," he said.

Others aren't so optimistic.

"The only thing civil about this," said state water-rights engineer Gerald Stoker, "is that it will end up in civil court."


(Additional information)

River's name honors an 1827 explorer

Not only is it a curious name for a river, but Virgin River doesn't describe the waterway's reputation for flash floods, poor water quality and drying up at points in Arizona.

Early Spaniards called it El Rio de Sulfureo for the sulfur hot springs in Washington County that contribute to the river's salinity, according to John W. Van Cott's "Utah Place Names."

Explorer-trapper Jedediah Smith named it the Adams River for then-President John Adams, but the name never held, Van Cott said.

The name that did stick honors Thomas Virgin, a member of Smith's 1827 party, Van Cott said. Virgin was severely wounded and later killed by Indians in the area.

Another version among old-timers in the area is that the river was at one time called the Sevier, but a mapping error mislabeled a meandering waterway in central Utah the Sevier and the erratic river in Washington County the Virgin.


Virgin River demands in Utah, Arizona and Nevada

Average annual flow 170,000 acre-feet


Water currently used 75,300 acre-feet

Approved water rights 210,000 acre-feet

Pending applications for water rights 190,000 acre-feet


Water currently used 8,781 acre-feet

Approved water rights 31,600 acre-feet

Pending applications for water rights 166,600 acre-feet


Water currently used 10,500 acre-feet

Approved water rights 23,300 acre-feet

Pending applications for water rights 214,000 acre-feet

*Approved yet undeveloped water. Does not include 55,000 acre-feet approved for storage in Quail Creek Reservoir. Nor does it included certified water rights, which exceed the total of approved rights.

SOURCES: Utah Division of Water Resources, Utah state engineer, Arizona Divison of Water Resources, Nevada state engineer, Las Vegas Valley Water District, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.