Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011 | 2 a.m.
What seems obvious to anyone who has spent time in beautiful rural Nevada, and is backed up by volumes of research from federal and academic researchers, is the truth that removing the water that sustains the wildlife of the Great Basin means nothing less than enormous environmental change.
What seems obvious to independent scientists, researchers and the residents of the Great Basin is disputed, of course, by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which wants the right to pump 41 billion gallons of water annually from rural Nevada and Utah, and to charge Southern Nevada businesses and residents billions of dollars to do so.
According to independent analyses, including research from federal agencies and SNWA’s own contractors, SNWA would drain the groundwater below the existing roots of vegetation in an area of 19,000 square miles, a region the size of Vermont.
But we acknowledge that a big part of the SNWA campaign is the theme that “Those pesky scientists (including those hired and then fired by the SNWA) don’t know what they’re talking about.”
The War on Science is nothing new. You can peruse the Internet to find that climate change is a massive hoax perpetuated by scientists fabricating extreme weather events and the physics of airborne carbon; that an Ohio scientist did not really step foot on our moon in July 1969. Also, Bigfoot.
The objective documentation to support all these suppositions is a bit sketchy. In the end, the supporters of these concepts turn to other, nonscientific sources of authority for confirmation: Interpretations of Scripture, self-made calculi of limited application to our physical world, and the massing of thousands of like-minded anti-science zealots. The SNWA and its employees turn to another source for confirmation (similar to those denying the physical properties of atmospheric carbon): Money!
The latest price tag for what the SNWA innocuously calls the Groundwater Development Project, and what everyone else calls the Water Grab, is $15 billion. Greenbacks. Benjamins. Dollars. That’s a lot of money to play with. More than half of that money, according to the SNWA’s own contractors, would go to bankers. Wall Street doesn’t need another bailout.
SNWA claims that even if the Water Grab never provides a drop of water for Las Vegas — a scenario that seems increasingly likely, if only because we only use two-thirds of our allocation from the Colorado River and new-home construction is, as they say, “not economically viable” at this time — there might be as many as 900 workers employed building the pumps and pipelines at any one time.
Just for fun, divide $15 billion by 900 workers. Do you really think construction workers are going to take home anywhere close to $17 million each?
No, our money will bleed out of state, and quite possibly out of our country. And there is no guarantee that we would ever use one drop of the water that the SNWA says might, or might not, be needed.
SNWA’s army of lobbyists and lawyers, or course, would be the winners.
The losers would be the towns, Native American communities and wildlife of Great Basin. Here in the urban south, the losers would be those small and large businesses benefiting from Southern Nevada’s growing importance as a money-making tourism destination to the great outdoors.
And of course Southern Nevada’s working families, which would pay for the SNWA’s lobbyists, lawyers and financiers, would also pay, every day, and they would pay a lot. For many businesses and families, the total would be thousands of dollars annually, which could triple water bills.
Who speaks for them, for working families and small businesses? We don’t have lobbyists on retainer. A courageous Clark County commissioner recently pointed out that one SNWA lawyer, whose job it is work with his friends among the Wall Street financiers, gets paid $500 an hour. Again: $500, an hour, day after day, week after week. We’ve paid for that year after year. And this pipeline boondoggle will pay for many more $500-an-hour pinstriped lawyers and lobbyists out of the paychecks of working Clark County families.
That kind of money buys a lot of politics. In fact, it trumps science, good public policy and too often, unfortunately, the decisions of our government officials.
But we have an opportunity to stand up for wildlife, for working families in Las Vegas, for science and reason, and for a future that’s not based on profit, but on what works for all of Nevada.
It is time to stop a program that is environmentally catastrophic, costs billions and is not necessary.
Launce Rake is a board member of Great Basin Water Network, a member of the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club executive committee, and an independent consultant who loves living and working in Nevada.