Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Biggest Water Grab In Our Nation's History

The Owens Valley water grab (by Los Angeles) may be the most infamous so far. But if you consider the land effected, the Rural Nevada water grab by Las Vegas is much bigger. The land area where water will be taken approaches the size of Vermont. Over 100 aquifers will be effected.

Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) has given the water grab the Orwellian name of the Groundwater “Development” Project (GWD). The Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) states that SNWA has applied to “convey” approximately 200,000 acre feet per year of groundwater from Clark, Lincoln, and White Pine Counties. And the coal fired power plant SNWA wants, to power the many GWD pipeline pumps, will take another 8,000 acre feet from valleys even further north. If you're familiar with river flow capacities, this may not sound like a lot. For example, the Colorado River flow is about 7 million acre feet per year. But remember, there are no rivers here. This is the desert.

So, why would Las Vegas want to take water from the desert? The answer is long and complex, but it comes down to; because they can. However, there may actually be a hidden motive; that's where the biggest profits are – even though there is a better option.

We have a motive:

SNWA has already agreed to transport water from Rural Nevada to a new housing development, Coyote Springs, for 5000 dollars an acre foot. SNWA may not charge that to all of their customers, but we can utilize this established price for rough calculations of potential revenue. SNWA intends to pump water from Rural Nevada for at least 70 years. OK. Here are the numbers:

200,000 acre feet/year X 5000 dollars/acre foot X 70 years = 70 Billion Dollars

And SNWA estimates that the pipeline network will cost 2 billion dollars. Damn! A billion dollars a year of potential profit. This makes hitting the lottery look like chump change! Talk about a temptation. Maybe it's enough of a temptation to lie about this being the best option – for the customers. Maybe it's even enough of a temptation to lie about the real cost of the pipeline.

Will the GWD project really cost 2 billion dollars? An independent evaluation, conducted by Mifflin and Associates, estimated the project at from 12.4 billion dollars to as much as 20 billion dollars! That's up to ten times what SNWA is telling us. If the million or so tax paying residents of Las Vegas heard that number, they might choke at the thought of having to pay 20,000 dollars per person (for water may not be there).

Worth noting is that SNWA is a quasi-municipality. Windfall profits shouldn't be an issue for a municipality like it would be for a corporation. Yet, we don't know what might happen sometime in the next 70 years. Just because nobody is talking about privatization, doesn't mean nobody's thinking about it. Even if right now; nobody intends to get filthy rich off of Nevada's water, somebody will eventually try – and the stage is being set.

Not only is Las Vegas growing, but so is Pahrump, Jean, and Primm. SNWA may not legally be able to charge for Rural Nevada's water, but as mentioned with Coyote Springs, they can charge for delivery. And if a private company can be a part of that, there is potential here for an immoral amount of profit – at Rural Nevada's expense.

We have a far less environmentally disastrous alternative:

One thing that hasn't been talked about much is the fact that deep water aquifers tend to have a lot of dissolved salts in them. There could be substantial additional costs for water treatment. The Nevada groundwater from deep aquifers may have to be desalinated.

Desalinated? Hey wait a minute. If we're going to have to desalinate the water anyway, why not just desalinate sea water. Las Vegas could build desalination plants off the coast of California and trade that water for a bigger allotment of Colorado River water. This has got to be cheaper than drilling, pumping, piping, and desalinating Nevada water.

So, why wouldn't SNWA want to desalinate sea water? The answer is simple. Why pay to desalinate sea water, when you can get paid for taking water from Rural Nevada? Why increase the supply of fresh water, when you can claim that water is scarce? Why go begging to California, when you can push Rural Nevada around?

Considering the legal morass we call water law, SNWA's options may be limited, however. California is presently taking three times its allotment of water from the Colorado River, and is fighting tooth and nail to keep it. I've heard rumors that Californians are even watering their dry lake beds (to keep dust down – and air quality standards up – to get highway funds). California farmers are taking as much water as they want with impunity – and they somehow have control over Hoover Dam's floodgates. Lakes Mead and Powell are being emptied because of this water greed. But suspiciously, all of the lakes downstream of Lake Mead are near capacity. Because of this, it's very likely that SNWA believes that California will do whatever it takes, right or wrong, to get as much water as they can take. There is a possibility that if SNWA were to desalinate water for California; the communities on the coast would just take the desalinated water, while the farms near the Colorado River would just keep taking more than their allotment. Apparently, when it comes to water, it's a jungle out there.

But wait a minute. This is America. We pay taxes to our Federal Government to enforce the rule of law, not the law of the jungle. Our Department of Interior is supposed to see that reasonable rulings apply. And this one is a no-brainer. The whole world is short of water, and there's plenty of water in the oceans. Simple common sense would lead America to the desalination of sea water. So, why is the Department of Interior (DOI) promoting the draining of our groundwater reserves? This is not just an environmental issue. This is not just a long term economic issue. This is a National Security issue.

We have a possible illicit scenario:

Maybe the Department's own inspector general, Earl Devaney can explain. He recently testified that “Short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.” That could explain why common sense doesn't seem to matter.

Corruption may help to explain why the DOI ordered the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to drop their protests to the GWD water grab. The BIA didn't even get to consult with us Indians before they did what they knew every one of us would be against. Many very dedicated and ethical front line Government employees put in a lot of work into these protests to show that the water grab was a bad idea, and they were ordered to stand down. There is no reasonable explanation. Could it be that officials of the Department of Interior just give in to the biggest bully, or are some of them on the take? Either way, it would mean that the right decisions are not being made. If so, maybe Rural Nevada should be more angry with the Department of Interior than Southern Nevada.

Whatever the circumstances, SNWA has decided to emulate Los Angeles with their water grab of Owens Valley. SNWA is buying up as many ranches in Spring Valley as they can. Southern Nevada has far more political influence in the State of Nevada than these Rural areas, and they are using it. Their head, Pat Mulroy, has even implied that SNWA will use their political influence to fire the State Engineer if his water ruling doesn't suit SNWA's desires. And what do they want? Tens of billions of dollars worth of water, under other people's feet, for free.

With the latest technology, there is a better way; offshore desalination powered by wave energy. I roughly estimate the cost to be about $3 billion to $6 billion (and you wouldn't ever have to pay for power or fuel) – far less than the $25 billion the GWD pipeline and coal fired power plant might end up costing (and this estimate excludes the price of coal, which over the course of decades, would raise the price of the GWD by billions). Of course, this is a bigger issue than just convincing SNWA to do the right thing. This won't work if we can't fix the Department of Interior. People of influence have already fixed politics in their favor – and will resist real reforms, to keep their profits coming in. It will take millions of us, actively participating in the day to day operations of our Government, to fix things.

In my opinion, we are witnessing systematic corruption at the highest levels. And if we continue to allow illicit profits to be more important than doing the right things, collapse of our system is inevitable. Moreover, the collapse of our environment will go hand in hand with it – leaving us with no alternatives in the future.


Frasera said...

Great letter to the editor in last week's Ely Times. I hope many people read and absorb your message. At least a few of us here in Ely agree with you. Keep up the good work.

Brett said...

Nice treatment of the subject. And the trend of psychological word games to make bad things sound good (e.g. GWD) is so frustrating. I feel somewhat helpless as we watch this pervasive corruption, that you mention, expand. I don't know how we can change it and I don't see millions of people getting involved in the day-to-day operations of govt. I think cynicism as well as the fact that people seem to be so busy making ends meet act to preclude this happening. I've become resigned to the feeling that the best thing I can do for the healing of the Earth is to pray for it and create energy in that direction.