During a summer of continued drought, a thirsty Utah town and the federal government are moving quickly to siphon water away from Nevada.
Federal regulators are set to release an environmental review on a project that will pump and pipe water from remote valleys near Great Basin National Park in Utah’s West Desert to the fast-growing, high-desert town of Cedar City.
The project will suck billions of gallons annually from a desert aquifer system located in Nevada and Utah –– and ultimately ends in the Great Salt Lake. The effort by the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District (CICWCD), in conjunction with the Cedar City office of the Bureau of Land Management, is the latest attempt by a regional water purveyor to export water from the heart of the Great Basin to a community that is already draining its own local water supply.
For those wondering, this is akin to the Las Vegas Pipeline project that tireless advocates defeated after 30 years of fighting. The new project from Cedar City, yet again, poses an existential question for communities with booming populations in regions with shrinking water supplies: Should one community be able to harm others.
Let me answer that unequivocally: No.
A new report from the Great Basin Water Network (my employer), reviews existing federal data to provide insights about the project’s effects in Nevada.
A dozen groundwater basins in Nevada will see water levels decrease, according to the report. The report reviews existing data from a U.S. Geological Survey groundwater model that predicted aquifer drawdowns if Cedar City gets approval to build the first two phases of its water export scheme, which will drain 9 billion gallons annually from the region.
The affected areas include Snake Valley, home to Great Basin National Park, agricultural operations, Native American cultural sites, recreation-dependent businesses, and people who know how to fight water grabs (See Las Vegas Pipeline).
According to our review of USGS data, the project will drawdown Snake Valley’s groundwater system by 50 feet within the first 62 years.
The data we reviewed also show drawdown in Spring Valley and ten other aquifer systems in Lincoln County.
The drawdown in places like Snake and Spring Valleys are unacceptable. It is groundwater mining –– plain and simple –– and would not comply with water law in Utah and Nevada. At the federal level, we believe it will breach federal bedrock environmental laws and a 2004 statute that requires a bi-state agreement before the exportation of groundwater resources in the Nevada-Utah borderlands. So far three Utah counties and White Pine County in Nevada have committed to fighting the proposal. We hope that the opposition grows.
The regional underground flow system along the Nevada-Utah border is a delicate, interconnected system of aquifers that share groundwater flow. The Valleys may seem sprawling and vast. But they are all inextricably tied to one another.
The first phase of CICWCD’s project is in Pine Valley, which is hydraulically connected to the south with Snake Valley. When water leaves one basin in a regionally connected system, water from another basin will come in to replace it. What happens when pumping exceeds the recharge from snowmelt and rain, ultimately, is a domino effect. One aquifer after the next shrinks.
What does this mean for life in the Nevada-Utah borderlands? Large and small springs that wildlife and humans depended upon will likely go dry, impacting places like Great Basin National Park. Fish populations throughout the valley – and in places like Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge –– will be imperiled.
While the science of groundwater flows is complex, the basic principles of this flawed project are elementary. In phase 1 of the project, CICWCD plans to pump away more water than actually exists underground in Pine Valley, according to the USGS.
The 66-mile pipeline and 15 groundwater wells will all go on federal land if the BLM approves the application from CICWCD. As the project undergoes environmental review, we have to ask ourselves: Can Cedar City water officials even be trusted with the water that they want to take from Nevada.
History shows that water leaders there cannot even manage their own water supply. The Cedar Valley aquifer is not producing what it once did – but they keep pumping like it’s the past. In fact, water officials have allowed its aquifer system to run a massive deficit. More water goes out than comes in every year.
Now, those same officials who’ve failed to protect their own water supplies, want to fix their problems with someone else’s water.
If I were a resident of Cedar City I would be worried. The CICWCD is a small water agency with big aspirations. The cost of the project, low-ball estimates begin at around $240 million, is about 120 times greater than the water providers’ annual expenses.
Who will pay the price? As it relates to the financial costs for building and constructing the project, it will be the people of Iron County. According to CICWCD, the project will raise water rates between 300 and 700 percent.
And there will be other costs.
What about impacts to family farm operations in Utah and Nevada – folks who will have their water stolen? The same can be asked about Indigenous communities with cultural and spiritual ties to the water sources and lands? What about the cost to wildlife, those creatures that cannot speak for themselves? How about outdoor recreation?
We have to ask: What is this project really about. Take a drive around Cedar City, which gets about 12 inches of rain per year. Green lawns are everywhere. Water waste is rampant.
Should we be sacrificing our last best places to keep urbane aesthetics that don’t belong in arid regions? Before Cedar City starts stealing water from other communities, it needs to take a look in the mirror.
Kyle Roerink writes columns on natural resource issues throughout Nevada and the West. Kyle is the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. He lives in Reno. Support his writing.
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