So Long, Starry Skies

Will the planned pipeline for a thirsty Southern Nevada harm Great Basin National Park?

20081220182057photo-chris-wonderly.jpgA little more than 90,000 people visit Great Basin National Park each year. Compare that to Zion’s 2.8 million visitors and you begin to understand that Great Basin, nestled in Nevada’s White Pine County, is a sort of stealth park, an under-the-radar beauty. Maybe that’s why it’s a frequent target for really bad ideas.

The latest is part of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plan to pump tens of thousands of acre-feet of water per year from valleys in northeastern Nevada and bring it to Las Vegas via a massive pipeline that would cost upward of $3 billion.

The park rises between two of the areas where SNWA wants to pump: Snake Valley to the east, with its stark high-desert landscape; and Spring Valley to the west, with lush meadows cascading down rolling hills. The park itself is known for its snow-capped jagged peaks, carved millennia ago by glaciers, and 5,000-year-old bristlecone pines. It includes the intricate formations of Lehman Caves and remarkably dark night skies. A recent issue of Backpacker magazine included a Great Basin hike among the best wilderness getaways in the nation, in part due to the availability of water on the trek.

The water authority’s proposed pumping wouldn’t take place in the park, per se, but some conservationists say it could nevertheless affect these features and attractions.

“Groundwater pumping could result in flow reductions in springs, ponds and perennial streams, and alter vegetation … within Great Basin National Park,” reads the final environmental impact statement filed by the Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for granting the rights-of-way that would allow the SNWA to construct the pipeline’s infrastructure.

The BLM and the water authority have proposed several alternatives for moving water north to south—none popular with the public—and the bureau’s final environmental impact statement includes a new one, labeled “Alternative F.” It takes into account the more than 300 public comments posted during the evaluation period for the initial impact statement.

Alternative F provides for more water being taken from Spring Valley than previous proposals, but accounts for none from Snake Valley. SNWA spokesman J.C. Davis says the water authority has obtained rights from the state engineer to pump 48,000 acre-feet per year of water from Spring Valley and has pending applications for approximately 40,000 acre-feet for Snake Valley—but no water rights there yet.

When the water authority obtained its Spring Valley water rights, it agreed with the National Park Service and several other agencies and Indian tribes to monitor environmental impact in exchange for their cooperation. According to the agreement, these agencies can’t officially protest the Spring Valley part of the project.

Groups are, however, voicing concerns about potential pumping in Snake Valley, which could affect both the nearby community of Baker and the area’s unique wildlife, such as the eyeless shrimp recently discovered in Great Basin’s caves.

Some conservationists warn of more drastic impacts. Lynn Davis, the Nevada director for the National Parks Conservation Association, says vegetation die-off in Spring Valley could create a dust bowl, potentially diminishing air quality as far away as Clark County and blotting out the park’s brilliant night sky.

“Right now, we’re looking at more water being pulled out of Spring Valley than was proposed in some other alternatives and a weak promise that Snake Valley is off the table,” Lynn Davis says. “I’ve seen many people on Facebook saying, ‘I thought the fight was over.’ It’s only beginning.”

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