Border lines won’t save Nevada from Utah’s new Water Grab

Water exportation plan may impact Great Basin National Park and Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge

Cedar Breaks National Park, Cedar City, Utah - photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by John Margolies, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-MA05-1]

Opinion

Borders are a construct of modern civilization. Aquifers, creeks, and streams disregard those defining lines we see on maps. The line splitting Nevada and Utah –– the two driest places in the nation –– is no exception.  

Split by the Utah-Nevada border, Snake Valley is the paragon of complications and shortcomings attached to the mythos of boundaries –– especially on resources like water.

Snake Valley was a focal point of the effort to stop the Vegas Pipeline. In that case, Utah stepped up and helped prevent Nevada from siphoning water away from the Snake Valley aquifer and other groundwater sources connected to it. Now, mere months after the defeat of the Vegas project in court, another fight is brewing. This time it’s a Utah entity perpetuating the water wars along the border. 

In the coming months, the BLM will release its environmental review for what I like to call the West Desert Water Grab – a pumping and piping scheme proposed by the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District in Cedar City (CICWCD). This project has water rights in Utah for Pine and Wah Wah Valleys and applications for water in Hamlin Valley. To put it in perspective, these valleys are the next-door neighbors of Great Basin National Park. 

This project, like many others, is a war of paper water vs wet water. One US Geological Survey analysis shows that the project will ultimately have a 10,000 square mile impact from pumping nearly 7 billion gallons annually in Pine Valley and Wah Wah Valleys.  If Utah regulators approve applications for Hamlin Valley, another valley halved by the border, things will be even worse. The aquifers below the ground in Snake Valley could drop by up to 500 feet – impacting Great Basin National Park and Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. Plants will die off. Dust storms will distort the region’s renowned dark skies. The springs that feed wildlife will disappear. The families and businesses that rely on water will have to go somewhere else. 

The blue triangles on the interactive map below show the locations of the Pine, Wah Wah and Hamlin valleys. Click on the triangles for detail.

Aquifer drawdown in Nevada will also hit places like Spring Valley, Dry Valley, Lake Valley, and Panaca Valley as well. Sacred tribal sites and resources will be threatened. In Utah, three underground flow systems that feed the Great Salt Lake will see detrimental impacts –– ultimately leading to the drawdown of the lake. For what? 

The town of Cedar City and Iron County, a fast-growing region between St. George and Salt Lake, seek this water to help solve their own problems. Iron County is running a water deficit, using more water than mother nature is willing to recharge in its aquifers. The community has let this go unchecked and created a problem for itself.

The ground is subsiding and water managers are in a pinch. But instead of turning irresponsible use into responsible use, CICWCD is doubling down on the former. If past behavior is an indicator, as the deficit implies, there’s no way we can trust this project or CICWCD.

CICWCD is begging for the project while declining to implement any meaningful conservation programs like turf removal, agricultural buyouts, and stricter watering guidelines in the community – solutions that would quickly fix its deficit. Nor has it proposed building modernized water recycling and treatment facilities. Instead, it wants to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars to build a network of pipelines that will drain aquifers where some water dates back to the last Ice Age.

The financing for projects like this is based on returns on investment. But draining desert aquifers won’t deliver in the long run. It will just drain the wallets of ratepayers who will have to pay for a project that doesn’t deliver. 

Furthermore, piecemeal USGS data in the targeted basins make the timing estimates on impacts unclear and uncertain. No one can say with accuracy how long it will take for impacts to show themselves. But if billions of gallons of water every year start going someplace new –– mainly to feed urban sprawl in Cedar City – there’s no doubt that ecosystems and human enterprises will be affected sooner rather than later. 

The USGS estimates that Snake Valley – home of Great Basin National Park – will see major aquifer drawdown in the first decades of the project. That loss of water would be devastating. 

The snow-capped peaks of Mt. Wheeler, the park’s centerpiece, offer an analogy to the water issues. The mountain may exist on the Nevada side of the border, but its geologic DNA also exists in Utah. The same logic applies to the aquifers below the ground in the borderlands. The underground water system is a far-reaching network that only exists to the human eye via springs and seeps. But its reach is expansive in our subterranean interiors.  

As federal permitting enters key stages for the CICWCD pipeline, we cannot ignore that one state’s actions will affect another’s. When Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declined to sign the Snake Valley agreement with Vegas pipeline proponents in 2013, he recognized the symbiotic nature between Nevada and Utah’s water supply. 

If only Utah’s water managers could recognize today what the state’s officials did back then. 

Water knows no borders. But it has limits. 


Editor’s note: The Sierra Nevada Ally is inviting local writers to pen approved opinion columns for the publication. We invited Kyle Roerink to write columns on natural resource issues throughout Nevada and the West. 

Kyle Roerink is the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. He and his wife live in Reno Nevada. Support his writing.

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.