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Water Science

INTRO: Tonight the Deputy Director of the USGS Nevada Water Science Center will be in Ely Nevada to present scientific methods for determining how much water pours in and out of the state's northern reaches. The study will be used by various agencies from congress, the Department of the Interior, the state engineers of Nevada and Utah to the National Parks Service. They'll use it to determine if Las Vegas should be allowed to draw water out of federal land in northern Nevada. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.

PLASKON: Nevada is the driest state in the nation with 8-9 inches of rain per year on average. Las Vegas is even dryer, with only half that annual precipitation. On the other hand, the mountains around Ely Nevada located a couple of hundred miles north of Las Vegas bathe in 80- inches of precipitation per year. As that water trickles to lower elevations it feeds springs, rivers, and crops. Farmers in the area guard water like gold says resident Joanne Garrett.

GARRETT: They watch it carefully and make sure that they don't dry up their neighbors well. It takes real management and caring which is not possible if you are a distant water user. You have to live on the land to really care for it properly.

PLASKON: So, the Southern Nevada Water Authority's plan to drill deep into the northern soil, draw precious liquid and pipe it to Las Vegas isn't very popular among residents. They are taking a page from the past. Across western states, history is riddled with big city thirsts ending in disaster for rural towns, from collapsing aquifers, drying up lakes that are the source of hazardous dust and destroying rural economies. SNWA's General Manager Pat Mulroy knows why there is so much opposition to Las Vegas' plan.

MULROY: Yes, and I will tell you why. Because no one has been able to do it in a different way.

PLASKON: The first step to doing it differently is scientific. Studying how and if water can be removed from the deep carbonate aquifer without the devastating effects of the past.

RICCI: The carbonate system has been studied a great deal.

PLASKON: State Engineer Hugh Ricci says that despite the abundance of studies, the Lincoln County Lands Bill signed by congress in 2004 requires another 6 million dollars study by the USGS. The study's currently underway.

RICCI: This wasn't my idea, to have another study of the carbonate system.

PLASKON: It was Utah's idea. Boyd Clayton is the Utah Assistant Engineer.

CLAYTON: I don't think there are studies that cross the border.

PLASKON: Water underground isn't bound by state and county borders. USGS hydrologist Dan Bright agrees they need to better understand this underground world.

BRIGHT: I think it needs to be re-studied, I think the entire carbonate system needs to be re-studied. We are just studying White Pine County which is really political boundaries. It is better to have hydrologic boundaries and they are huge and we don't have the resources on the short timelines to cover such a huge area.

PLASKON: Mike Strobel, is Deputy Director of the USGS Nevada Water Science Center in charge of the congressionally mandated USGS study.

STROBEL: It is not for us to decide if it is long enough, we are told to do a study within a time frame and that is how we operate.

PLASKON: He will be presenting the study methodology in Ely tonight. The aquifer is like a bank account he says. Rain and snow are like money flowing in. Springs are like money flowing out. Strobel says one way water goes out is through vegetation. It consumes 80 to 90 percent of the water that lands on the ground he says. There's one way to know what will happen for sure.

STROBEL: One of the things that we feel as scientists is important as far as looking at impacts, to do that we feel that you need a long-term pumping tests and that is not part of this study.

PLASKON: However, there is one new study nearing completion that does fill the bill of reporting impacts called Sustainability of Water Resources in the Great Basin National Park. Commissioned by the National Parks Service, Hydrologist Bill Van Lou knows what the report says, when pumping drops groundwater levels rivers disappear underground.

VAN LOU: Where if there were large scale withdraws in the basin they could potentially be depleted.

PLASKON: Despite the results of studies like this, Mulroy of the Water Authority says its best to start pumping and see what happens.

MULROY: I have the greatest respect for hydrologists but not until you put a well in the ground and start to stress the system do you know how much water is in the ground.

PLASKON: Mulroy testified before the legislature this year that the final costs to ratepayers of the plan could reach 2-point-2 billion dollars. Each of it's more than 100 wells would cost between 1-thousand and a million dollars to dig. Paul Brown of the Progressive Leadership Alliance thinks that once the SNWA sinks money into the ground it will fight tooth and nail to continue to pump water no matter what the scientific consequences.

BROWN: If we invest billion sand billion of dollars are they really going to tell us that they are dropping the water table too fast? Will we actually get that information? It comes down to credibility, when money is at stake figures can get skewed.

DAVIS: Fortunately nobody has to take our word for it. Because that is why you have the BLM and Nevada state engineer analyze the effects.

PLASKON: JC Davis of the SNWA says there are plenty of checks and balances. State engineer Hugh Ricci agrees with the SNWA. Start pumping.

RICCI: We could go along doing study after study after study, but until then you are not going to know what impact will occur.

PLASKON: Ricci assures he can order the SNWA to halt pumping the water if he decides there are devastating effects. That would cost Las Vegas water customers the millions SNWA spent on holes in the ground.

RICCI: That's always a risk.

PLASKON: Piping northern water south could get even riskier. Assembly Bill 434, being heard today, creates a special legislative commission to evaluate the state engineers methods of allocating water and would require engineer Ricci to consider more scientific studies. Neither Ricci nor the SNWA were available for comment by deadline. But According to the bill's author Assembly, member Shila Leslie, opponents of the bill include the state engineer, mining interests and the SNWA. Some are expected to testify against it at today's hearing. Leslie says in her six years in the Legislature this is the first time she's ever seen such stalwart opposition to a bill. It's making them nervous she said.

Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR

After the air date of this story, the SNWA responded that it opposes AB434 as written.