Partoun, UT – The Snake Valley on the Utah-Nevada state line is one of the most sparsely populated areas of the West. But beneath the roots of its greasewood and sagebrush, there's a hidden treasure - a huge underground aquifer filled with water. Officials in Las Vegas have their eyes on it, but the people who live there fear the resource will be depleted faster than it can replenish itself. A key decision on its future is coming up.
Sprinklers irrigate a hay field near Ken and Kathy Hill's home in Partoun. This area of Utah is so sparsely populated, just getting here requires driving fifty miles on dirt roads. But that isolation hasn't kept them from actively challenging plans by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to pump 176-thousand acre-feet of water a year from the Great Basin south to Las Vegas. While some of it comes from the snow that falls in the Deep Creek Range and other mountains nearby, much of it may date back to the last ice age, when most of the Great Basin was covered by the ancient Lake Bonneville.
Sitting on the lush lawn they keep green with water pumped from their own well, the Hills say the future of their whole community is on the line. "There is water here," Kathy says, "and they're amazed at how deep the aquifer is. But it was put down here in Lake Bonneville. If we had Lake Bonneville back, maybe we'd replenish our aquifer. But at this point, there's absolutely no hope of replenishing it. It's going to be destroyed permanently and what we have here, what beauty is here."
It may be years or even decades before groundwater pumped from the interior valleys of the Great Basin starts flowing through a pipeline to Las Vegas. But the Bureau of Land Management is facing an important decision in the coming months - whether to allow a right-of-way for that pipeline across federal land. The draft environmental impact statement on that decision could represent the most important opportunity so far for the public to get involved.
Ken Hill hasn't found much to like in what he's read of the document, which is as thick as an urban phone book. He says, "The BLM's draft environmental impact statement has basically confirmed what we've been saying all along. They've got four pages of irreversible effects. It's water tables going down that aren't going to come back up. It's subsidence where the ground crushes the aquifer. That's never coming back. I mean, just page after page of these effects that are just irreversible." Even if the effects weren't as severe as the draft EIS says they might be, Kathy Hill says it wouldn't take much to have a serious impact on the community her grandparents settled back in 1915. "No one is rich here, and it takes finagling just to be able to pump water out of the ground, put it on the ground and make a living from it. You increase those costs and it's not going to take very much of an increase to make it not viable for a living. We're ornery people, we're independent people, we're stubborn people and that's probably the reason we're out here in the first place."
The B-L-M has been holding hearings on the draft EIS on both sides of the state line. Last week, Millard County Commissioner Daron Smith spoke at the hearing in Delta and said there's a lot we still don't know about the hidden groundwater flows between the valleys proposed for the project. Smith says federal law requires a study of that very question. "This draft does not address the relationship between the basins. In the Lincoln County Land Act it actually states that the inter-basin water flows, the flow systems between the basins need to be studied, and they have not, and they are not addressed in this EIS." Millard County is helping to pay for one of several studies of the underground water flows being conducted by the Utah Geological Survey and other agencies, but those results are at least months if not years away.
There are still a number of obstacles to the pumping plan. Among the most important is an agreement between the states of Utah and Nevada allowing a division of the groundwater in Snake Valley. A tentative agreement was worked out two years ago, but it's been put on hold while other legal challenges to the project are decided. The Nevada Supreme Court invalidated an assignment of water rights by the state engineer, and that process has to start over. But the Southern Nevada Water Authority sees the B-L-M decision as just one step in a very long process that still has many regulatory hurdles to overcome. Lisa Luptowitz represented the agency at the Delta hearing. "As we move in to the future," Luptowitz said in an interview with KUER, "there will be additional environmental processes that will be able to further refine the potential impacts associated with groundwater pumping. And so I think that some of the impacts that are identified now are fairly broad in scale and associated with the nature of the programmatic analysis that is in the document."
The public comment period on the draft environmental impact statement had been set to expire next month, but the B-L-M has now extended it until October 11th. The Great Basin Water Network is asking that it be extended further, into December. Another hearing on the draft environmental impact statement is set for this evening in Salt Lake City. It begins with an open house at 4 o'clock at the Hampton Inn and Suites at 307 North Admiral Byrd Road, with the hearing to follow. It's also accepting written comments by mail or online. A final decision from the B-L-M on the right-of-way for the pipeline is expected next spring.