Jan 15, 2010
by WLJ

Remarks draw attention to controversial Las Vegas water imports

Drawing what may have been an unintended comparison of water use priorities, Allen Biaggi, director of Nevada’s Department of Natural Resources, whose agency recently authorized the controversial mining and export of up to 60,000 acre feet of water from Spring Valley to Las Vegas, recently told AP News that agriculture negatively impacts water for wildlife. He was quoted saying, “[W]here agriculture is present, springs and streams have dried up (water) that would otherwise be available for wildlife,” in an Associated Press story about the Nevada Board of Agriculture’s investigation into the legality of unpermitted wildlife guzzlers.

The state environmental chief’s sweeping characterization of the comparatively minimal drawdown of water tables by irrigation pumping, which his department authorized, draws stark contrast to the drawdown that is sure to occur once Southern Ne vada

Water Authority (SNWA) turns on the pumps for its massive 300-mile pipeline constructed to transport up to 200,000 acre feet of water annually from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas. Biaggi’s remarks confirm environmentalist and rancher’s concerns about the SNWA project.

Meanwhile, Biaggi ignored the documented parallel between the development of water sources for cattle and sheep as well as irrigation agriculture and the corresponding dramatic increases in wildlife in the once barren Great Basin. Nevada’s ranchers and farmers are almost singlehandedly responsible for the state’s thriving wildlife populations. Contrast today’s abundance of deer, elk, big horn sheep, and sage hen, for example, to the written accounts of the early explorers to this state who were lucky to find a rabbit to eat, and some of whom survived their visit to Nevada by butchering their dogs and horses. Were it not for ranchers and farmers developing springs and wells, grubbing water-depleting willows from stream banks, building ditches, and irrigating meadows, wildlife still would not have the habitat or water necessary to thrive in the arid Great Basin.

A more likely cause for the disappearing streams and springs that Biaggi alludes to is the overgrowth and encroachment of pinion and juniper pine trees throughout the Great Basin into places never before documented. Heavy utilization of this renewable resource for energy and building materials by the early settlers significantly reduced competition for water in the aquifer, causing countless springs to “spring up” in the remote reaches of the Great Basin. Common sense tells us that if one mature pinion or juniper consumes an average of 15 gallons of water a day, thinning 1,000 trash pines, for example, potentially sends 1,500 gallons a day directly back to the aquifer, causing dry springs to run once again, even during a drought. Yet the environmental policies of Biaggi’s department discourage this simple solution to developing additional water sources, and by extension, forage.

While Nevada struggles economically, racking up some of the highest foreclosure and unemployment rates nationally, Biaggi’s unfounded allegations against one of the state’s few stable industries are incredibly irresponsible and damaging. Ranchers and farmers consistently generate well over $1 billion annually to Nevada’s coffers.

Biaggi, the highly trained career bureaucrat charged with allocating Nevada’s scarce water resources and protecting the environment, cannot be ignorant of the differences between developing and spreading water within a basin, and mining and exporting the same water to golf courses in Las Vegas. Instead, his agency’s permitting of inter-basin transfers may convert parts of the Great Basin into a “great Saharan desert” of sand dunes and dust storms. Then we will have a true measure of how well wildlife thrives when the rancher and farmer are eliminated from the water equation.

Ramona Morrison

Vice Chairman, Nevada Board of Agriculture

[Ramona Morrison serves as Vice Chairman of the Nevada Board of Agriculture.

Her family has been involved in ranching and farming in Nevada since the 1860s.]