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Is Las Vegas out of water options?

Rural water necessary, agency official warns

SHARE Is Las Vegas out of water options?

LAS VEGAS — Las Vegas has run out of options for water and will see growth pinched off in seven to 10 years unless plans are approved to pump groundwater 200 miles south from rural White Pine County, a water agency official said.

The assessment by Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is the strongest warning to date about a looming water shortage.

In recent years, drought in the West and a failure to find other water sources have left the agency with just one option, Mulroy said: The water must come from groundwater in White Pine and other rural parts of the state.

White Pine rancher Dean Baker and county Commissioner Gary Perea said they don't believe the water authority's analysis of the amount of water underground in their county nor the predicted effect the groundwater plan will have on their ranches, farms and the environment.

They said they do not trust the agency's promises to stop pumping if the environment is hurt.

"It's not about politics or money or whatever. It's about water," Baker said.

Mulroy acknowledged that her sharp warning was, in part, due to her anxiety about how the state will rule on the plan. The state's top water official, State Engineer Tracy Taylor, has scheduled hearings in September before deciding whether to approve the agency's proposal to pump the water more than 200 miles.

Mulroy said the economic effect of a denial would be immediate. Even before the agency could appeal the decision in court, lenders who bankroll construction and business expansion in Las Vegas would begin turning down loans, she said.

"There's a whole market collapse that would happen," Mulroy said. "The whole economic confidence of southern Nevada would start eroding."

The argument ups the ante in a fight over the Southern Nevada Water Authority's plan to pipe 200,000 acre-feet of water a year from rural Nevada to Las Vegas.

Mulroy and her staff have argued consistently that the agency must find new sources of water to complement the 300,000 acre-feet drawn annually from the Colorado River, which supplies 90 percent of the local demand. An acre-foot of water can supply up to two homes per year.

Six years ago, Mulroy said river water surpluses could supply the growing needs of the region for decades. But drought coupled with growing demand from other states has effectively killed expectations for surplus water.

Mulroy has lined up union, business and political leadership to testify on behalf of the Water Authority at September's hearings, which will cover applications to take 91,000 acre-feet annually from the Spring Valley in White Pine County.

Witnesses expected to testify against the plan include ranchers and environmentalists. Representatives of the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey are scheduled to speak, but could withdraw their opposition.

Although the region has stopgap sources, such as water banked here and in neighboring states, Mulroy said, southern Nevada could run out of water for growth as early as 2013.

In 2004, the agency commissioned a study on the economic effect of stopping growth.

The study by financial analysts Guy Hobbs and Jeremy Aguero found a sudden end to growth in Clark County could lead to hundreds of thousands of unemployed people in Las Vegas and more than $200 billion lost in state tax collections over 14 years.

The effect would extend beyond Clark County. Two-thirds of all state tax revenue comes from southern Nevada's cities, and 15 percent of state revenue comes from construction, Aguero said. If the construction industry started to shrink, tax revenues would fall.

Billy Vassiliadis is head of the marketing firm R&R Partners in Las Vegas and has clients including the Water Authority, the Nevada Resort Association, and the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association.

He said growth is a mixed blessing for the region, but growth is here to stay. The water authority has to serve the growing demand, he said.

"On the one hand, clearly, growth creates service demands, and not just water demands. At the same time, growth has also become government's cash flow in a state where we don't have things like income tax, other sources of stable revenue," he said. "We have become somewhat dependent on growth because of the construction industry."

Clark County's economic well-being supports and sustains schools, roads and health care all over the state, he added.

Arguments about growth in Las Vegas do little to reassure environmentalists and White Pine ranchers opposed to the project.

For them, the question is also about survival. They don't trust the agency's promises that it will not harm the water supply in White Pine County. They also fear that once pipelines are built to Las Vegas and the water turned on, the state engineer would never turn it off, even if the water table falls in their county.

Baker said water tables already are dropping in White Pine County from area agricultural uses that don't come close to the amount the water authority wants to take.

"What we're doing is a drop in the bucket compared to what southern Nevada is doing," he said.

Baker, one of a couple of dozen Nevada ranchers in the region, questioned the wisdom of new water supplies fueling continued growth.

"By definition, something that has to survive on growth is going to die sometime," Baker said.

Perea said he wants to see the water stay in his county for economic development — more homes and people, perhaps a ski resort.

"Who's to say that it's not White Pine County that is the future of Nevada?" he said. "The future of Nevada is not necessarily in Clark County."

Jim Deacon, a professor emeritus of environmental studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has argued on behalf of environmentalists against the groundwater plan.

"The fundamental flaw is the idea that you must maintain constant growth in Las Vegas," he said. "There is some point in time where we will reach a resource limitation. We have neither infinite resources nor infinite space in which we can expand."

Deacon, the White Pine critics and some hydrologists argue that the water authority has overestimated the amount of water it can take from Nevada's rural valleys.

The water authority has argued that it won't know how much water is there for the taking until it starts pumping and gauging the effect.

Both sides could continue to fight over the issue well past the September hearings. If Taylor, who took over the office two months ago, follows precedents established in previous contentious water issues, he will let the water authority take only a portion of its request, ramping up the amount the agency can take over a period of years.

If one side or the other believes the state engineer's decision is unfair, they can appeal to state courts. The water authority also is keeping the option open to take the issue to the Legislature.