Las Vegas Sun

February 21, 2019

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Jon Ralston on why the governor’s suggestion to build a desalinization plant misses the point

“I know water from the ground up.”

— Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Northern/rural Nevada, Oct. 9, 2006

I always wondered what in the world that meant, but I figured because then-Rep. Gibbons was a hydrologist, it must mean something.

Experience is the best teacher, though, and I realize 16 months later it makes as much sense as, “Twas brillig and the slithy toves ...” Or, perhaps, less sense.

Now that he is Gov. Jim Gibbons, R-Northern/rural Nevada, it has become clear that he knows little about water — either literally or metaphorically. (Hey, Governor, did you notice the state budget is underwater?)

This inexorable fact became clear this week when the governor, repeating a mistake from almost exactly two years ago, gave a rural audience what it wanted, without regard to the long-term consequences.

As much as Gibbons loves the rurals, someone ought to tell him that it is downright condescending to act as if the cow counties don’t have newspapers. Remember in February 2005 when he went to Elko and frothed at a Lincoln Day Dinner about “liberal, tree-hugging, Birkenstock-wearing, hippie, tie-dyed liberals,” among other things, as dutifully reported by the Elko Daily Free Press?

Now another fine rural newspaper, the Lahontan Valley News, reports that our hydrologist governor expounded on water on the ground up in Fallon last week. Here’s the relevant section:

“He (Gibbons) touched on water issues and said before the state allocates water, it needs to take inventory of its resource and identify its uses before releasing any surplus. Instead of pitting northern and southern Nevada against each other over water, Gibbons proposed scrapping the idea of a pipeline to move water down south. He suggested the state aid in building water desalinization plants in California and trade water credits on the Colorado River.”

There is so much to say about that small paragraph. But, luckily, I know Gibbons from the ground up. So here goes:

Gibbons has been trying to have it both ways on the rural water importation project since he ran for governor. His opponent, state Sen. Dina Titus, called him on his “see no pipeline” rhetoric in the rurals while he was collecting most of his war chest from Southern Nevada gamers and developers who support the project.

Gibbons later delivered his “we are one state” inaugural address, followed quickly by a meeting in which he seemed to indicate opposition to the pipeline project, followed almost as quickly by a denial that he was against it. The governor insisted he wouldn’t take a stance until after the Desert Research Institute completed an inventory of the state’s water needs, but that went nowhere.

Around that time, he also came up with the kooky idea of selling water rights under highways down here — oh, yes, that’s a unifying idea, too. And now the Fallon speech, which while not as nutty as the infamous, plagiarized Elko screed, is more evidence that Gibbons does speak Jabberwocky in all areas of the state.

Before the environmental screeches start up — and the enviros are the governor’s new best friends after this week’s statements in Fallon — I am not suggesting that every Southern Nevadan should reflexively support the pipeline project, which has an exploding price tag (now $3.5 billion) and many unresolved questions. But for the state’s most prominent elected official to come out against it and to suggest desalting as an alternative misses the fundamental point, which is surprising if his water knowledge starts at the ground.

The water folks have been looking at desalting plants in Arizona, California and Mexico. But even if one or more comes to fruition — and it will take awhile — such a facility would not do anything to help with the reliability issue. That’s because an alternative must be found that doesn’t have anything to do with the Colorado River, from which we get 90 percent of our water. So exchanging river credits for a desalting plant is not helpful.

That doesn’t mean the rural water project is the only alternative, although water czar Pat Mulroy says tapping in-state resources is essential “even if not one more person moves into the state.”

“I am not sure the governor fully understands what’s happening down here,” Mulroy said, showing a gift for understatement. Mulroy said she hopes to meet with Gibbons to see how firm his opposition is.

Then again, maybe Mulroy should listen when they get together. Maybe our hydrologist governor can teach her something because, of course, Gibbons knows water from the ground up.

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