Newspaper column: Latest study should further dampen Las Vegas’ appetite for rural groundwater

A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey published this summer has added credence and hard numbers to the arguments from opponents to a plan by Las Vegas water utilities to tap 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater from valleys in White Pine and Lincoln counties.

The study reviewed water data and used a computer simulation to research a 9,000-acre swath of land collectively called Snake Valley that straddles the Nevada-Utah border and includes a number of interconnected aquifers and named valleys. As Jason King, Nevada’s state engineer who is responsible for water rights allocation in Nevada, found previously, the study noted that tapping water in one area would have far reaching affects.

USGS map of Snake Valley

Proposed increases in water withdrawals in and near Snake Valley by the Southern Nevada Water Authority would likely result in declining groundwater levels and a decrease in natural discharge to springs and streams, the study warned, as reported in this week’s newspaper column, available online at The Ely Times, the Elko Daily Free Press and the Mesquite Local News.

“Because of the magnitude of the proposed development project and the interconnected nature of groundwater basins in the region, there have been concerns that new pumping will disrupt Snake Valley’s groundwater supplies and threaten the wetlands and ranches that rely upon them,” said Melissa Masbruch, USGS scientist and lead author of the new report. “This study can help assess the effects of future groundwater withdrawals on groundwater resources in the Snake Valley area.”

Masbruch added, “This new model represents a more robust quantification of groundwater availability than previous studies because the model integrates all components of the groundwater budget.”

The study calculated all the groundwater recharge for Snake Valley from various sources, including precipitation, unconsumed irrigation and inflow from other aquifers and found that the valley groundwater receives about 175,000 acre-feet. But when all of the outflow is added up — current wells, springs, streams and outflow to other aquifers— it is almost precisely the same amount of water — equilibrium.

This prompts the authors of the study to warn, “Increased well withdrawals within these high transmissivity areas will likely affect a large part of the study area, resulting in declining groundwater levels, as well as leading to a decrease in natural discharge to springs …”

USGS employee at well near the southern Snake Range, Nev.

It is those springs and streams that support livestock, agriculture and a vast array of wildlife, some of which are threatened or endangered. Declining groundwater levels would mean local wells might have to be drilled deeper, a very expensive proposition for local landowners and homeowners.

A 75-page lawsuit filed earlier this year by a coalition of local governments, private organizations and Indian tribes made this point but without having precise figures to support their suspicions. Among the plaintiffs in the case are White Pine County, the Great Basin Water Network, the Sierra Club and the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority, which addresses water resource issues for Churchill, Elko, Esmeralda, Eureka, Lander, Nye, Pershing and White Pine counties or about 65 percent of the land in Nevada.

“The proposed pumping would amount to a devastating groundwater mining project, under which the groundwater system would not even begin to approach equilibrium for thousands of years, with the potential of never reaching equilibrium,” the suit contended.

The figures in the USGS study also add precision underpinning to a ruling a year ago by Senior Judge Robert Estes who called the water authority’s plans for the water transfer “arbitrary and capricious” because its plans for monitoring, mitigating and managing the water take contained no precise triggers.

“There are no objective standards to determine when mitigation will be required and implemented,” the judge wrote. “The Engineer has listed what mitigation efforts can possibly be made, i.e., stop pumping, modifying pumping, change location of pumps, drill new wells … but does not cite objective standards of when mitigation is necessary.”

Judge Estes concluded that if “it is premature to set triggers and thresholds, it is premature to grant water rights.” He remanded the engineer’s rulings for recalculation of water availability and further studies.

If nothing else, the Estes ruling is almost certain to reduce the amount of water Las Vegas could tap from its northern neighbors.

A study for the water authority by Hobbs, Ong & Associates of Las Vegas found that Las Vegas water rates would have to triple to pay for the $15 billion project. The less water drawn, the higher the cost per gallon.

It seems unlikely the water authority can justify spending that kind of money if the spigot could be turned off because of damage of the environment, which this study suggests is likely.

16 comments on “Newspaper column: Latest study should further dampen Las Vegas’ appetite for rural groundwater

  1. Rincon says:

    Steve says to always doubt scientific authority, especially scientists paid by the government that are concerned about wetlands and the like. The recommended approach is to withdraw the water to find out for sure who’s right and then adapt if by some fluke the scientists were right in the first place.

  2. Steve says:

    The very clear difference, Rincon, is the groundwater is easily measurable and does not require a “model” to realize the the numbers add up.

    In fact the model mentioned only supports the facts and feeling of the people directly effected by this grab.

    Apples are not oranges, Rincon.

  3. Rincon says:

    Where did you get the idea that groundwater is easily measurable? It most certainly is not. Besides how do we know these guys aren’t being paid off?

  4. Steve says:

    Did you read what Tom wrote? Plus there are multiple studies by different groups to go off. You are trying to compare apples and oranges.

  5. Rincon says:

    Multiple studies by different groups. Sounds a lot like global warming. Remember, when the scientists reach a consensus, always question it. Michael Faraday and all of that.

  6. Steve says:

    “Sounds a lot like global warming.” NOT.

    IPCC is full of “accepted” “climate scientists” and any other studies are panned as outlier groups at best or base denialists more commonly if not called flat out called the “tin foil hat” crowd.

    In this story the studies are from multiple groups and they tend to support each other rather than exclude any who do not “fall into line”

    So did you find out what happened to Faraday in his early life? Before he broke through the wall of closed minded ignorance of the “consensus” of his time?

  7. Rincon says:

    In this case, one denier would be enough to trigger your philosophy, no matter who sponsors him because you are so willing to embrace a small minority with very limited evidence. It is necessary that outliers are not embraced by science. If they were, then scientists would be airheads – flitting butterflies that could never settle on a firm conclusion. Previously, it was the global warming theorists that were the outliers. Global warming theory was first presented in 1896 and was not seriously studied and discussed in the 1970’s. Action was not recommended by the mainstream until the 1990’s. Theories have to overcome a great deal of skepticism and that is as it should be. Once a theory has justified itself though, it naturally takes a great deal of evidence to overturn it.

    The problem is not that the mainstream won’t consider the evidence of the skeptics. The skeptics dominated for over 100 years. Today, they STILL refuse to consider the evidence of the former outliers. You should be proud. In this case, the mainstream did indeed listen to the outliers – after enough evidence was accumulated. Your skeptics are the stubborn holdouts.

    Could global warming be less of a threat than mainstream science thinks? Of course! Could it be worse than the skeptics believe? Only a flaming idiot would say no to that (I don’t think that’s you). The problem isn’t with the skepticism, but rather what ideologues decide that it means. We can only consider global warming to be a risk; no more, no less. Only an ideologue though, would instantly conclude that there is no way to deal with the risk except to merely ignore it. Intelligent people minimize risk if the cost is reasonable. You somehow seem to think that partial prevention has to be more expensive than taking our lumps if and when it comes down. I instead, believe that energy efficiency and getting off foreign oil can be win-win answers, albeit imperfect ones.

  8. Steve says:

    Ah, so you didn’t find out what happened to Faraday.

    Nice rant, you hit all the talking points, thanks.

  9. Rincon says:

    Thanks for the compliment. I worked hard on that one. Now that you’ve read the talking points, it’s time to try to understand what they mean. I’ll be happy to guide you through the hard parts 🙂

    As for Faraday, Wikipedia didn’t mention anything about his early life that sounded like opposition to his ideas, so I gave up looking.

  10. Steve says:

    After showing them all up,

    “Proving that scientists can be pissy little jerks just like anybody else,, Davy effectively banishes Faraday on a fruitless, four year long search for the formula of perfect optical glass.”

    To this day, that is more an art than a science but Corning is getting real close.
    (Search for a “Day made of glass” if you are interested)

    What you need to understand, Rincon, is that scientists can be pissy little jerks just like anybody else and when in power will do whatever it takes to remain in power. IPCC is a very powerful organization made up of humans. People who push other people out of the way for simply asking questions.
    The best science comes from experiments performed for different reasons and in disconnected places of research, which discover the same or very similar results. ONE group directing all the experiments easily guarantees results will be what the group of people in charge WANT them to be.

    Climate changes, who knew? ABSOLUTELY every thinking being on the face of the planet, THATS who! We really need a bunch of power dunk humans controlling every facet of our lives based on stories of unbelievable horrors to come? And when they don’t appear, we are supposed to believe its only a “matter of time” that we have….another century?

    Get real, I have a life to live and I plan on living it the best way that suits me and mine.

    No power drunk group of former scientists turned managers, is going to get me to listen to their drivel.

    Now, show me some unconnected experiments (not software models) and we will be able to talk.

    Until then, climate changes and we really have no way of knowing what those changes will be….maybe the earth birthed humans so it could get that carbon out of its belly! (Hey, that is as believable as Gaia, huh?)

  11. Rincon says:

    So all of the mainstream scientists are “pissy little jerks”, but the skeptics can’t possibly be the same. How supremely logical. Check with the creationist crowd. They would love to have you.

  12. Steve says:

    “but the skeptics can’t possibly be the same.”

    Where did I say THAT?

  13. Rincon says:

    Note that I did not use quote marks. It’s an implicit assumption. You choose not to believe the mainstream community. I suppose it’s possible you believe neither, but whether you choose to believe the skeptics or not, the result is the same: You fight for their cause, which is to prevent any action aimed at reducing the threat.

  14. Steve says:

    No I choose to think for myself. The mainstream community is in no way the majority of the community…in fact it is about 50/50 even today.

    You know what an assumption does, right?

    Makes an ass out of you and me!

    You make many assumptions about what I am saying.

    I choose to accept the political people who used to be scientists are now in a position of power and are doing anything they can to remain in power…up to and including pushing out any who have any notion of questioning their cause. Like Davy did to Faraday.

  15. Rincon says:

    Tell me how you know it’s 50:50. I say it’s nowhere near that.

  16. […] Estes’ ruling a study by the U.S. Geological Survey calculated all the annual groundwater recharge for the valleys […]

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