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Water wars: Snake Valley issue is not as simple as David vs. Goliath

SHARE Water wars: Snake Valley issue is not as simple as David vs. Goliath

SNAKE VALLEY — Jerald Bates climbs into his dusty Ford truck, drives a quarter mile up a winding dirt road, gets out and points to his lifeblood.

The water bubbles up from the ground, surrounded by lush grass as it courses over rocks.

An overhang sprouts moss, maidenhair ferns and multiple waterfalls, concealing a pseudo-cave from the casual visitor.

This is Warm Springs, in the desert of Snake Valley, and its water temperature averages 80 degrees as it flows at 17 cubic feet per second.

Bates owns rights to a third of this spring, but he fears the water will dry up and blow away with the desert dust if a controversial pipeline taps an aquifer in the valley, which straddles the border of Utah and Nevada.

At 67, Bates has never lived anywhere but Snake Valley absent a two-year stint in the Army.

He says he's been to Salt Lake City, of course, and in his words, "decided it's a good place to be from, far away from. I really didn't enjoy city life."

The aquifer supplies the water to the well at his home, which is 30 miles north off a dirt road that cuts away from U.S. 6/50. It also sustains the 100 or so head of Gelbvieh cattle that he runs and gives life to the monstrous Lombardy poplar trees on both sides of the dirt "driveway" to his house.

"If you drop the water table out here," as residents fear the pipeline will do, "nothing will grow," Bates said.

The saga of the Las Vegas pipeline over the last 20 years has taken as many turns as the underground water it proposes to tap.

From 1989 — when the Southern Nevada Water Authority first applied for water rights — to 2009, when a Nevada judge turned off the tap on some of that water, the battle has been epic in this sparsely populated area little known to most Utahns.

Encompassing more than 500 miles, Snake Valley is an eclectic blend of contrasts in topography — Deep Creek and Snake mountain ranges rise from the desert floor on the Nevada side, and high desert country in Utah is dotted with multiple varieties of sagebrush, Mormon tea and Indian ricegrass.

The precipitation that falls in the mountains feeds streams and a reservoir, seeping underground to the aquifer and giving life to multiple springs.

The U.S. Geological Survey says that 260,000 acres in Snake Valley are groundwater dependent. Close to 85 percent of that land is in Utah.

It's easy to paint caricatures, putting the pugilists into their respective corners of the ring.

On one side are the greedy Nevada would-be water purveyors who want to slip into Utah's already parched west desert and use big bucks and slick lawyers to steal precious water from the aquifer.

If they get it, as one Snake Valley rancher said, they will squander it on "gluttony, glitter, girls and gambling."

On the other side are the solitude-loving, hard-working, God-fearing ranchers and farmers who just want to eke out a living in a valley that didn't get electricity until 1972 and phone service until 1986.

But it's not that simple.

As loud as the critics' rhetoric rises over the water authority's pipeline, just as loudly the water authority retorts that it has a duty to find water in its state for its residents.

"When you put all the hyperbole aside, our actions consist of drawing on our own water supply within our state," said John Entsminger, SNWA's deputy general counsel.

The water SNWA seeks is not just for the glitz of the Strip but for homes, for industry, for its future. Las Vegas gets 90 percent of water from the Colorado River, and compared to other states, its share is paltry, determined on agricultural use long before the metropolis sprang from the desert. With future "allotments" threatened, Las Vegas must look elsewhere for water.

SNWA argues it would be derelict in its obligation to provide water to Nevada residents if it turned its back on an available source. Stressed Kay Brothers, deputy general manager, "I don't know why we would be asked to do that."

Dean Baker can think of 17 reasons off the top of his head.

A rancher who lives just over the border from Utah in Baker, Nev., he was weaned on the Snake Valley and Great Basin country as a child, spending summer vacations there with his family camping, fishing, listening to the owls at night. He's ranched there now for decades and says he believes the water is already being overused. His own water needs dried up the well for an elderly neighbor. But he fixed that.

Elsewhere in the valley, pumping to irrigate new alfalfa fields dried up Needle Point Spring in late 2001. "They found 17 dead wild horses by it."

Antelope Springs fed the ground and gave it meadows. There once were ponds. "It's all dried up."

Baker blames the overusage on the day electricity turned the lights on in Snake Valley because it also gave residents a more efficient and expedient way to pump the water.

"In my opinion, no, there is not enough water now," he says.

Baker, a relative "newcomer" to the area who's been there 56 years, is a member of the negotiating team that put out a controversial draft agreement on a proposed water split in Snake Valley.

Utah negotiators, along with the Nevada team, came up with the provisions after four years of haggling.

Although it evenly splits 132,000 acre-feet of water per year between the states, opponents to the proposal say it gives up too much of the "unallocated" and "reserve" water to Nevada.

They argue, too, that the amount of water divvied up is not realistic, especially in the "reserve" category, which many have said is simply paper water.

Pumping any water, opponents say, will devastate plants like the greasewood shrubs that hold the soil together.

The dust storms that Bates and other locals say are already frequent would multiply, swirling their way into the Wasatch Front to compromise air quality. Even though the agreement includes a host of environmental protections and is designed to protect existing water rights, critics say it caves in to SNWA.

Baker, because he was on the agreement's negotiating team, has taken his share of criticism.

"Everyone is down on Dean for what he did," Bates said. "I told him he did a dang good job … We are not going to get everything we want, because if we got what we wanted, they would go away."

The agreement is seen by many as the first shovel in the ground to install the seven-foot-diameter pipeline, something natural resource leaders in both states say isn't the case.

SNWA still has to get its water rights applications approved by the Nevada state engineer and plow though a bevy of bureaucratic permits to make the pipeline a reality.

Applications for water rights in three of those basins were reversed just last month by a Nevada judge who said the engineer had granted them arbitrarily, without concern for the so-called downstream effects.

The decision, which SNWA said it will appeal, has called into question the need for the agreement and given pipeline critics a glass of hope from which to sip.

"The ruling is a big setback for SNWA," said Steve Erickson with the Great Basin Water Network. "They must now regroup, prepare to go through all this again while appealing the decision. … It also weakens their hand in those talks."

But SNWA officials say the ruling was flat-out wrong and turned 100 years of Nevada water law on its head.

Nevada, added state resource director Allen Biaggi, believes there is water in Snake Valley that can be removed without detriment to others and that interbasin transfers of water are routine for the state.

Routine or not, the Snake Valley Aquifer Advisory Council announced last week it will ask Gov. Gary Herbert to suspend negotiations in light of the court ruling.

But opponents who have spent two decades in the trenches against SNWA aren't likely to have their angst erased by a nine-page judicial decision. The fight, often characterized in biblical terms as a David vs. Goliath battle, will go on.

About 88 miles west of Delta, after traveling on U.S. 6 and U.S. 50 through slate-gray hills and high arid desert, past the Sevier Lake and countless dirt road turnoffs to places like Blind Valley and Fossil Mountain, you see it.

It's a little breath of civilization called the Border Inn.

Appropriately, it sits in both states. On the Nevada side you can throw a coin in a slot machine and gamble on your luck. Try your hand at the glitz.

On the Utah side, you can buy potato chips and postcards.

Behind the checkstand is the collection jar where you can toss a dime or dollar in the fight against SNWA.

Co-owner Denys Koyle says about $1,000 has been donated to spread awareness about the endless water fight.

It goes to promote messages like the one on the towering water bucket out in the dirt parking lot for all the motorists to see.

"Keep your pipes out of our aquifer."

And you can almost hear the sigh from SNWA on the prevailing Nevada wind.

It's not all yours …

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com