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Great Basin Water Tour, Day Two: ‘What’s unlimited is human imagination’

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Heidi Kyser

Rancher Henry Vogler talks to Great Basin Water Tour participants near his ranch in northeastern Nevada.

A group of women — mostly young people of color wearing T-shirts emblazoned with political slogans — sits on boulders arranged in a circle on the northeast edge of a hill overlooking the heart of Henry "Hank" Vogler's sheep ranch in the Spring Valley of northeastern Nevada. Vogler is in a trucker cap, a blue-plaid shirt and Wranglers held up by suspenders. His audience is rapt as he holds forth on the history of his family business, and how it would be destroyed should the Southern Nevada Water Authority be allowed to pump groundwater from Spring Valley and ship it via pipeline to Las Vegas.

Nowhere is the chasm between urban and rural cultures more apparent than in this tableau — or a similar one created the day prior when the women, who are participants in the Great Basin Water Tour, visited Farrel Lytle, another rancher who lives near Ursine, Nevada. Lytle led the group up to a hill overlooking the lesser Spring Valley, some 150 miles south of Vogler's place, where they had a sweeping view of the green pasture on which the Lytle family's 150-year-old business relies to feed and water its livestock. The foliage that intermittently blankets the valleys running north to south along the eastern edge of Nevada betrays the water flowing beneath the desert, the result of snowmelt and precipitation that finds its way into a complex of aquifers connected by a spiderweb of cracks in the carbonate rock.

The scarcity of such flows in Nevada makes it an extremely valuable resource, which explains the bitterness of the fight over it. Vogler and Lytle contribute to the nonprofit Great Basin Water Network, which formed in the early 2000s after the Southern Nevada Water Authority revived its 15-year-old applications for rights to water in Spring, as well as Snake, Cave, Dry Lake, Delamar and other similar valleys. With a tiny allotment of Colorado River water relative to the six other Southwestern states that depend on that source, Southern Nevada needed to look elsewhere for supplies to sustain its growing population. Those verdant valleys were a conspicuous target.

Trouble is, there were already people using the valleys' springs and streams, and they're not giving up their water without a fight.

"The carrying capacity for humans in the Great Basin is limited. This landscape can't support millions of people," says Brandi Roberts, executive director of the Great Basin Heritage Area Partnership and longtime resident of Baker, Nevada. "Temperatures are cold. It's hard to grow things. You can raise cows and sheep, not much else. ... But as limited as the resources are, what's unlimited is human imagination and ingenuity, and the ability of people to overcome amazing challenges. This has been true for generations — hundreds of generations for Native Americans — and the way they do it is by working together. I've never lived in a place the defines community better than Baker, Nevada."

No one wants to destroy a community. But whether someone thinks the water pipeline to Las Vegas is a necessary evil depends on his perspective. There are family-owned construction companies in Las Vegas that contribute to the state economy and support multitudes of dependents, just like Vogler and Lytle do. How should water managers balance the needs of a thriving urban metropolis against those of small populations that occupy vast, open areas?

Pipeline opponents believe there is room for compromise.

"My wife has a house in Las Vegas and it costs twice as much for Internet as it does for water," Vogler says, suggesting that if urban users had to pay higher rates, they would conserve more. (Former SNWA chief Pat Mulroy frequently countered this idea by noting that, historically, rate increases haven't curbed usage.) Others point to desalination and potential trades with other Colorado River users as possibilities for staving off the need for a pipeline.

"I'm not saying we can't have Las Vegas," Vogler says." I just don't think we should have Las Vegas, and Reno, and a sand dune."

This gets to the scientific heart of the matter: whether the water pipeline would, indeed, dry up the now-fertile landscape, which SNWA in its legal defense has both denied, based on its scientists' projections, and also presented a plan to mitigate afterward, should it happen.

It's a much more complicated issue than can be covered in a dozen paragraphs — or three Nevada State Engineer hearings and two lawsuits, as it turns out. In one of the cases, focused on SNWA's drilling permits (the other turns on federal rights-of-way for the pipeline), the State Supreme Court sent water-rights applications back to the engineer for further review. A fourth hearing on them is scheduled to take place this fall. 

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