Las Vegas bids to fuel growth by tapping into farmers' water

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The Independent US

Nothing in the history of the American West epitomises the unscrupulous greed and ambition of its settlers more than the story of Los Angeles sucking the water supply out from under the farmers of the Owens Valley in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains a century ago.

The fertile valley was reduced to a dustbowl so the City of Angels could expand and turn into the sprawling metropolis it is today.

Now history is threatening to repeat itself - this time in the neighbouring state of Nevada, where the insatiable growth of Las Vegas and its satellite cities is sparking a new water war with the farmers and ranchers of the remote and beautiful Snake Valley straddling the border of Nevada and Utah.

Water officials in Las Vegas are lobbying to build a pipeline to carry more than one billion cubic feet of extra groundwater into their city every year, at an cost of $1bn. The pipeline would be the starting point of a larger project to pump almost eight times that much water into Las Vegas from a large swath of central and eastern Nevada.

The motivation for America's Sin City is clear: it has doubled in size in 15 years and is expected to grow faster than any other metropolitan area in the US for two more decades. It badly needs water - for domestic use, but also for golf courses and decorative fountains outside the garish casinos of the Las Vegas Strip.

The new pipeline, officials argue, would provide enough water for more than half a million new residents. (The current population is around 1.6 million.) The downside for the Snake Valley and the neighbouring Great Basin National Park is equally clear, though.

"Rural life itself stands to be wiped out as a result of this insatiable growth of Las Vegas," said Bob Fulkerson of the Great Basin Water Network, which wants to halt the pipeline idea. "Who benefits from that? The people who have always benefited in the West, and that is the barons; the wealthy," he said. "Who loses? The people without the means. It's not supposed to be that way."

After a tortuous lobbying process, the only thing still standing in the way of the Southern Nevada Water Authority is a three-week public hearing next month, during which state water engineers will listen to testimony from both sides.

The Las Vegas lobby denies that its actions will suck the land dry. The Snake Valley advocates, meanwhile, saythe inevitable consequence of tapping the groundwater is that it will eventually be drained - killing the livelihoods and culture of ranchers and native Americans and blighting one of the region.Activists argue that Las Vegas, a city with a reputation for excess, would do better to think of water-conservation measures. In other desert cities, such as Phoenix and Tucson, conservation measures have reduced water consumption to around 110 US gallons per capita per day. Las Vegas, meanwhile, consumes about 270 - and aims to reduce that figure only to around 255 over the next 15 years.

"They are irrigating their golf courses and the fountains at the Bellagio hotel with drinking water," he said. "In the desert, people feel that is absolutely immoral. It's turning nature on its head."