Water Wars of the West: Is History Repeating Itself with The Next Owens Valley / Aral Sea?

Many commentators are convinced that the major conflicts of the future will be over water rather than oil. There is a grim aptness in the fact that shrinking the word “water” produces “war”.  This is becoming ever more common in the U.S. Southwest – where rapidly growing cities looking to obtain & secure alternative sources of water are raising the ire and anger of smaller communities equally reliant on the limited resources.

Two recent articles, one from The Salt Lake City Tribune and the other from The The Mammoth Lakes Daily News help illuminate the acrimony starting to boil over in such water “fights”:

“…the arid West depends on a delicate balance of water. Even small disturbances in water availability can have catastrophic effects on the plant and animal life that we enjoy and depend on. The history of the Aral Sea in central Asia and the Owens Valley in California offers a powerful lesson about the likely consequence if Utah allows Nevada to steal water from the Snake Valley that straddles the border between the two states.

In 1960, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest lake. The diversion of fresh water to support cotton farming in the surrounding desert cut river flow into the Aral Sea to a trickle. By 2007, it had shrunk to 10 percent of its historical size.

The once-thriving fishery of the Aral Sea disappeared, and the major port city is now more than 60 miles from water. The blowing dust off the now-dry lake bed has smothered local agricultural production and ushered in a health crisis among the residents.

…This unimaginable human tragedy was human-caused in four decades by unwise use of very limited water resources.

At the turn of the last century, the Owens Valley in California was a thriving agricultural basin with the beautiful Owens Lake as its centerpiece. Growth in Los Angeles soon outstripped the local water supply and an aqueduct was constructed, diverting water from the Owens River to Los Angeles 223 miles away.

Through subterfuge, persistence and bribery, Los Angeles secured most of the water rights in the Owens Valley and diverted an increasingly large amount of water from the Owens River to Los Angeles. In 1970, a second aqueduct began draining the aquifers in the Owens Valley, sending more water to Los Angeles.

As water levels fell in the aquifers, springs and seeps dried up and disappeared, and vegetation dependent on groundwater died. The Owens Valley is now a dead alkali flat that has become the largest source of particulate air pollution in the United States.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority is seeking to remove 16 billion gallons of water each year from the aquifers under Snake Valley and other central Nevada valleys and pump it to Las Vegas to support the relentless growth of “Sin City.”

This plan is eerily similar to the Los Angeles water grab from Owens Valley. The Snake Valley aquifers were filled over millennia, but through shortsightedness, they can be emptied within decades.”


“…It seems hard to comprehend that in this day and age of tons of history on the great water theft in the Owens Valley-accomplished over 100 years by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, that anyone would think twice about it happening again. However, history is replaying an ugly chapter on the Nevada/Utah border.

This week the Great Basin Water Network filed a legal petition in Ely, NV, along with other groups of conservationists, scientists, native American tribes, the state of Utah, and citizens of the Delamar, Dry Lake and Cave Valleys.

The legal action stems from the recent (July 9 ruling) by Nevada’s state Engineer Tracy Taylor, who gave the Southern Nevada Water Authority (the city of Las Vegas) the right to pump 6.1 billion gallons of water a year to Vegas. Taylor reduced the initial amount of more than 11 billion gallons of groundwater a year down to 6.1 billion gallons a year.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority says it is entitled to this water. Taylor has told the media the amounts of water he approved “will not unduly limit future growth and development” in these remote Nevada valleys. And, Taylor also wants more studies done on the hydrologic and biologic values in the region. If it was determined that the pumping was “detrimental to the public interest or is found to not be environmentally sound,” the pumping could be halted.
Yeah, and this line of BS sounds just like the lines of poo LADWP handed the citizens of Inyo and Mono Counties over the past 100 years. How do you know the water keepers of the bigger cities are lying? Their mouths are moving.

This is another historic fight in the making of the “Water Wars” of the West, and the poor farmers, ranchers and residents of Delamar, Cave and Dry Lake Valleys have been subjected to the same kinds of pressures from Las Vegas water miners as the Owens Valley has been–and continues to be.

At stake are groundwater pumping standards, and what type of scientific evidence the city of Las Vegas will put forward to convince the state’s Engineer, Mr. Taylor, that “nothing bad is going to happen if we pump the crap out of the area.”

Similar to the Owens Valley and its distance from the City of Los Angeles–these unique Nevada valleys are located 75 to 125 miles from Las Vegas. This out-of-sight/out-of-mind situation makes the water mining seem invisible to the Las Vegans, who, probably like their counterparts in Los Angeles won’t actually see the devastation unfolding in these Nevada/Utah bordering communities.

It’s not surprising that Taylor denied Utah’s interested party status, and Taylor has said that the counties and Utah should have said something in 1989, when the massive pipeline project was first proposed.

Utah became involved when the SNWA plans for pumping 16 billion gallons of groundwater a year in Snake Valley, NV became formalized. Utah is concerned that the water pumping from Snake Valley would lead to dead vegetation and then dust storms–just like the Owens Lake….And, Utah and the smaller counties in Nevada have cited, in Carson City, just the facts of the Owens Valley’s history with LADWP as proof that this kind of disaster is entirely possible.
Las Vegas, in a move that is definitely similar to Los Angeles, says it needs that groundwater, and the city plans on getting the water to Sin City by 2015. Vegas says they really need that water to help them bring water to more than 230,000 homes, plus about 400,000 that already receive water. The cost of the project, somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion to $3.5 billion is being backed by big money from casino owners, construction developers and people crying wolf–in the form of statements like “if we don’t get the water, we’ll dry up and blow away. Then what will the state of Nevada do for income.”

My thoughts are: history will repeat itself, and SNWA will steamroll over the Great Basin Water Network, the Wells Band Te-Moak Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, and the Ely Shoshone Tribe. Then, Las Vegas will quadruple its population-run into more droughts and economic foreclosures, and tap another pristine place dry. Finally, “growth” for growth’s sake is just a money monger’s way of stealing something they never intended to pay for in the first place.

Look at the City of Los Angeles if you think I’m crazy, and realize that the City of Angels wouldn’t be a heavenly place to live if the city’s administrators didn’t mine water from the Owens Valley–instead the citizens of LA would literally be living in a hellish place, with none of their own water and too many people to support itself….”

This entry was posted on Sunday, August 10th, 2008 at 6:44 am and is filed under Colorado River, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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