Crops vs craps row pits farmers against Las Vegas

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The Independent US

Rural communities across northern Nevada are beginning to get anxious about plans by a big and very thirsty city to their south - Las Vegas - to suck water from their rivers and their land through a network of pipelines to be built over the next several years.

The pipeline plan is considered vital to the efforts being made by Las Vegas to keep itself from running dry, an event that could happen within two decades or less. The Southern Nevada Water Authority hopes to begin laying roughly 300 miles of pipes shortly to counties in the north and east of the state.

For now, Las Vegas depends for 90 per cent of its water on the Colorado River. It has imposed strict water consumption limits on the city, even going so far as instituting turf reduction programmes. About 52 million square feet of grass have been removed from homes, office complexes and golf course to produce savings of 2.8 billion gallons a year.

But with 6,000 new residents moving to greater Las Vegas every month, there is not enough water to go around. "In 15 to 20 years from now, our current supplies will be overtaxed and we will nee to find an alternative source," Jeff van Ee of the water authority said.

Mr van Ee, also an environmentalist activist, admits, however, that communities in central Nevada now expected to help out by accepting the water pipelines are not happy.

"A lot of people are seeing the impact this could have on their way of life ... and they're saying that as fabulous as Las Vegas may be, this plan to tap ground water is not the best alternative for rural Nevada".

The resulting controversy, dubbed "crops versus craps," has spurred the water authority to extend a deadline for public comment on the project. Its director, Patricia Mulroy, last week completed a tour of areas most affected. Her itinerary took in parts of neighbouring Utah which could also see a reduction in river and aquifer levels once the pipeline starts drawing the water.

Ms Mulroy insists that she has no choice but to tap new rivers and aquifers. "Nobody foresaw these huge cities. The regional realities today are very different than they were 85 years ago. There are now 26 million people in the lower basin [of the state]. It's a mass movement of humanity, all heading west."

Just building the pipelines is expected to cost about $2bn, but that is small change when it comes to assuaging the thirst of Las Vegas. Most of the water would be drawn from the Muddy and Virgin Rivers. The water authority says that in times of surplus, water will be pumped in the other direction to replenish what has been taken away.

Combine the explosive expansion of Las Vegas - the weather is good and employment is relatively plentiful - with the reality of a prolonged drought now gripping the region and the outlook seems increasingly urgent. Drawing more water from the Colorado River is not an option, in part because it would involve renegotiating an array of politically delicate water-usage compacts that go back generations.

"At some point, they're going to reach their limits," agreed Scott Balcomb, who sits on the Upper Colorado River Commission. "We've been in a prolonged drought in this part of the country. Sooner or later, the demand and supply curves are gonna cross. It can't be avoided. It's a real boom down there, but there's a lot more land in Nevada than there is water coming out of the Colorado."

Surprisingly, the main culprits for excessive water use are private home-dwellers and not the parades of casinos and hotels on the Strips with their increasingly outlandish outdoor water displays, like the fountains at the Bellagio.

Tourism in fact accounts for only 7 per cent of Las Vegas's water consumption.

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