A report last week said negotiators in Utah and Nevada are about six weeks from completing a draft agreement on how to divide the water below the Snake Valley.
While we understand the agreement would be a working document designed in part to protect Utah's interest and the fragile desert environment, and that it would be followed by public hearings, a great deal of skepticism is in order. The best deal of all would be one that forbids Nevada from using any of this water to feed the growing, thirsty population of Las Vegas.
The final agreement no doubt will include provisions for monitoring environmental impacts, making sure the aquifer is protected. But once billions of dollars of equipment rolls, and once hundreds of thousands of taps and toilets in Nevada rely on the supply, who is going to shut it off?
The Owens Valley aqueduct in California ought to be a warning to everyone in Utah about what could happen. Over-pumping in that area caused horrible environmental damage during the 20th century, drying up springs and killing vegetation. Despite a long-term agreement to reverse that damage, problems remain.
The trouble with the Snake Valley proposal is that its impacts are so uncertain. The desert is fragile. The greasewood, a small deciduous tree that lives on the desert, is particularly vulnerable. Without aquifers watering its deep roots, the tree would die. If it dies, that could make soils unstable, which might lead to huge dust clouds up to 4,000 feet in the air. If this happened, it could affect the Utah Test and Training Range.
In addition, ranchers say the fresh-water aquifer holds in check a polluted aquifer that lies beneath the salt desert. Pumping fresh water to Las Vegas would allow the polluted water to migrate, also causing environmental damage.
Southern Nevada may not just be drawing on water no one appears to be using. It could be causing irreparable harm to a fragile environment, leading to a host of difficult consequences.
This is an issue Gary Herbert ought to put at the top of his list when he becomes Utah's newest governor next week. The aquifer may straddle the Utah/Nevada border, but it looks as if Nevada would get all the benefit, while Utah would get all the consequences. The best agreement would be one that says Las Vegas has to look elsewhere for its water.