Sunday, April 2, 2000 | 9:20 a.m.
A subterranean water war is brewing between urban Clark County and its rural neighbor to the west -- a war that pits glitzy Las Vegas against Nye County, where farmers still harvest crops and milk cows as they have done for the past century.
The spoils of this war are the water sources that feed the areas: the Colorado River, which flows into Lake Mead, and the ground water under the desert rock in both counties.
The battle plan is to find clean water to fuel growth in both counties.
And the spoiler -- and an unwitting ally for the rural users -- could be the federal government, with its plans to build a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, in the middle of Nye County and 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Las Vegas gets the lion's share of its water from the Colorado. It has historically laid claim to Nevada's annual allotment of river water -- 300,000 acre feet a year. Two pipelines bring that water over the mountains from Lake Mead to Las Vegas Valley Water District treatment plants.
That water so far has been enough to quench the needs of Las Vegas. In fact, water district forecasts show that 2000 could be the first year that the area will need the entire allocation.
But with Las Vegas Valley growth continuing at 4.7 percent per year -- fastest in the nation among cities its size -- Clark County has been looking to its neighbor to the west for unallocated ground water for the future.
Nye County officials, meanwhile, have a different view of their future needs, one that hinges on Yucca Mountain.
The mountain, in the center of Nye County and only 12 miles from the agricultural Amar-gosa Valley, is the only site being studied for a proposed repository to contain 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste from 103 commercial and defense sources across the nation.
The state has marshaled its resources to fight the proposal tooth and nail, but Nye County officials have not taken an official stand against the repository, choosing instead to watch out for the county's interests if the state loses and a dump is built, said Les Bradshaw, the county's manager of natural resources and federal facilities.
That includes ensuring there is a healthy water supply if a repository contaminates the ground water -- and Nye officials think that water could come from Clark County.
Clark County fired the first salvo in this water war in 1989, when the Las Vegas Valley Water District filed applications with the state engineer to claim all unallocated ground water in Nye, Lincoln and White Pine counties.
At the time water district General Manager Pat Mulroy said Las Vegas Valley water users would pay to build a pipeline to bring the rural water to Las Vegas at a cost of $3 billion.
The rural counties fought the claims. After a raucous battle in the 1999 Legislature, an agreement was reached and sealed into law that gave rural counties first crack at any unallocated water rights within their own borders, but said Clark County could apply for anything left after their requests.
Mulroy, now general manager of both the water district and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the request to use unallocated ground water in other counties is still on file with the state engineer, but is on hold.
In the meantime, the water district has been buying water rights in various parts of rural Clark County, just in case the future requires alternate sources for the Las Vegas Valley.
The future of water in Nye County, while it also includes growth in Pahrump, is highly dependent on the fate of Yucca Mountain.
Ed Goedhart, manager of Ponderosa Farms, an organic dairy, doesn't want to see the high-level nuclear waste dump built at Yucca at all. He calls it "a terrible, tragic mistake for Nevada."
Once a Yucca repository leaks -- he assumes it will eventually -- and combines its radiation with that of the Nevada Test Site's nuclear weapons experiments, the Amargosa Valley could become contaminated, he said.
"People who make their living using that water," he said, "are quite worried about it."
But if the repository comes, Nye officials hope to get a $500 million pipeline built to Lake Mead, a third straw to bring uncontaminated Colorado River water over the mountains to rural towns and Nevada's largest dairy.
The Nye County pipeline plan is more than a casual idea. It is part of the county's strategy to gain benefits from the federally imposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, if the site passes scientific muster, said Mal Murphy, who tracks nuclear regulation and licensing issues for the county.
Nye officials have written a dozen issue papers on what Congress and the federal government should do for the county if Yucca becomes a repository.
If the DOE eventually gets permission to build and operate the nuclear waste repository, why not build a pipeline from Lake Mead to the Amargosa Valley to supply residents and farmers with water from the Colorado River, county officials reason.
After all, the river's share belongs to the state, not any single city.
Such a pipeline would turn the tables on Southern Nevada, but it might as well be a pipe dream as far as Las Vegas water officials are concerned.
"We have neither seen nor heard a formal proposal on that item," water authority spokesman Vince Alberta said.
Further, since the Las Vegas Valley has been the only one to draw on the Colorado River, water authority officials haven't even considered another area muscling in on current use.
"It is not addressed in our overall resource plan," Alberta said.
Water for Yucca
Add to the mix a request from the federal government to use 430 acre feet of water annually while it builds and operates the repository, and the battle lines in the sand run deep.
Although 430 acre feet doesn't sound like much, when the U.S. Department of Energy put in the request, both state officials and rural ranchers sounded the alarm.
After a court challenge, the DOE received temporary rights to the water in 1997, but last month State Engineer Mike Turnipseed denied the agency's permanent request. That battle, too, will end up in court, all sides say.
The state opposed the DOE's request for using ground water at Yucca, saying it would not be in the public interest, one of three criteria Turnipseed used in his ruling to deny the federal agency the water.
The other criteria included whether any existing water rights would be harmed or whether there was enough ground water.
Nye County and especially Amargosa Valley residents asked Turnipseed to consider the limited supply used to water crops such as alfalfa, pistachio nuts, melons and supporting Nevada's largest dairy farm.
The rural residents wanted to know if there was enough water available. The DOE and the state agreed that there was plenty, but that did not satisfy those residents.
"If there is enough water available, then the question is what is the preferred use?" Amargosa Valley resident Michael DeLee said. The state gives the right to use water based on the most beneficial use.
"Who has the real interest here?" DeLee asked. "The people who live here, who work here, who own the land here?
"Is it alfalfa or nuclear waste?"
DeLee has gone to court to demand the rural residents' concerns on the ground water supply be heard by Turnipseed, who dismissed them early during the DOE's hearing on the water rights last year.
District Judge John Davis in Tonopah said the rural people had a valid point. He could not rule in December, because Turnipseed was reviewing the evidence, more than 40 exhibits and testimony taken over two weeks of hearings at both ends of the state.
Now that Turnipseed has denied Yucca's request, Davis has promised he will hear the rural complaint.
But Yucca Mountain, while it could horn in on Nye's water supply, could end up being the county's ally. The federal government could help Nye County's bid to get a third pipeline from Lake Mead.
DeLee thinks that's a practical way to satisfy Nye County's fastest-growing town, Pahrump, population about 50,000, and allow the federal government to build a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca.
Since the Colorado River is a federal resource, the DOE could help fund a line to Nye County for both a repository and the rural area's growth, DeLee said.
"A pipeline for Pahrump may be the only way for Yucca Mountain to get water in the end," DeLee said.
Mary Manning covers environmental issues for the Sun. She can be reached at 259-4065 or by e-mail at [email protected]