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About Utah: Farmers fight a ‘Goliath’ water war vs. Vegas

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In sheer size, numbers and living conditions, this fight is as lopsided as they come.

In one corner, there are less than a thousand people who live along a stretch of land nearly 150 miles long along the Utah-Nevada border that is known, collectively, as Snake Valley.

In the other, there are almost 3 million people who live almost on top of one another in the rapidly growing metropolis of Las Vegas.

And while less than 300 miles separates Snake Valley from Las Vegas, their respective lifestyles are as far apart as Saturn and Neptune. Las Vegas has freeways, casinos, high-rise hotels, neon lights, shopping malls, 24-hour buffets, golf courses, swimming pools and Celine Dion. Snake Valley has about 40 ranches, Great Basin National Park, a wildlife refuge, almost no paved roads, zero street lights, no cable and virtually nonexistent cell phone coverage. Stand in the middle of Snake Valley and "you can't hear me now."

The fight is over what all classic fights in the West usually boil down to: water.

Las Vegas, growing at the rate of nearly 8,000 people per month, wants to tap into Snake Valley's water supply and staid Snake Valley — fearing the Apocalypse, or, even worse, having to up and move to Vegas — doesn't want that to happen.

You may have heard the commotion a group of about 40 people belonging to the Snake Valley Citizens Alliance made this past Wednesday when they demonstrated at the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building and delivered letters to Utah's senators, congressmen and governor.

Over a three-day period these fighting farmers had taken turns ferrying the letters by running the 223 miles from Snake Valley to Salt Lake. The final 100 miles or so symbolically followed the original Pony Express mail-delivery route.

"We're seriously outnumbered and we need to draw attention to our cause," said Kathy Hill, a rancher's wife from Partoun, as she took a break from rallying in front of the federal building. "There's nothing for us to do but fight."

What they're fighting for, explained Annette Garland of Callao, another rancher's wife, isn't just water. It's their homes and way of life.

"This could kill farming and dry up the springs," said Annette, who is also the schoolteacher in Callao (and I do mean the schoolteacher). "There wouldn't be anything left."

And while the Snake Valley residents acknowledge that the Southern Nevada Water Authority has insisted it isn't out to ruin anyone's home or environment, they aren't buying. Dipping into an underground aquifer, they point out, isn't quite the same as, say, sharing a drinking fountain.

"This is groundwater we're talking about," said Kathy. "It's water from Lake Bonneville and the Ice Age. Basically it's water that won't be replaced until we have another Ice Age."

Or roughly the same point in time Snake Valley will be willing to send any water south to Vegas.

A sentiment expressed succinctly, and with alliteration, in the SVCA rallying cry: "Critters and crops, not craps."

Whether they'll succeed in keeping their West Desert water to themselves remains to be seen. They're taking on big boys who are loaded with clout, connections and collateral. And they're getting thirsty.

It isn't hard to tell the David from the Goliath in this battle, or why the David is so bound and determined to at least try to buck the odds.

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.