Alarm clocks went off early on June 15 in Baker, Nevada, some 300 miles north of Las Vegas near the Utah border.
By 7 a.m., moms were setting up breakfast at the community center, where visitors to the Snake Valley Festival could get French toast, a side of meat and a drink for $8. Dads and kids were decorating cars, trucks and trikes for the parade down Baker Avenue. Jewelry makers and book collectors were arranging tables around Baker Hall, and Great Basin Water Network volunteers were pricing silent auction donations in the hall, anticipating crowds that would gather and spend money, all going to the network.
The festival—like the network itself—has a highly focused purpose, best encapsulated by a slogan decorating vehicles and T-shirts in the parade: “Without water, we’ll croak.”
They’re talking to us, Southern Nevada. We have been connected to the residents of Snake Valley, where Baker nestles, and other communities in east-central Nevada since the Southern Nevada Water Authority began seeking water rights there in the late ’80s. The green meadows rolling through Snake Valley—as well as Spring Valley on the western side of Great Basin National Park—give away the natural springs flowing throughout the area, fed by runoff from the Snake Range. To funnel some of this wealth south to Las Vegas, the SNWA proposed a Groundwater Development Project.
Residents of the Snake Valley believe the proposed pipeline would destroy the local ecosystem and their way of life. These residents, however, number fewer than 500, a fact that, in the cold calculations of cost and benefit, can make them seem inconsequential compared to Southern Nevada’s millions. Snake Valley may not be the economic engine of the state, but its people like to think they matter.
“What would I do with a big pile of money? Just look at that productive field out there,” says Dean Baker, a wiry, sunburnt 73-year-old, gesturing toward his 12,000-acre ranch. Unlike his Spring Valley counterparts, Baker refuses to sell his water rights to SNWA. He believes he’s a better steward of the land than the agency would be, and that raising food is more important than feeding urban growth.
If SNWA were allowed to build the pipeline, Baker residents believe, it would take all the water it could, creating a dust-bowl effect and killing not only agriculture, but also tourism, their other main source of income. Retired Great Basin National Park Superintendent Andy Ferguson, who’s made Baker his home, doesn’t want to lose the mild temperatures and clear skies that attract people from around the world to the home of Wheeler Peak.
SNWA spokesman Bronson Mack says the pipeline won’t endanger the natural treasure. “I go up there and go fishing and camping with my kids. It’s a beautiful area,” he says. “But we can do this in an environmentally sustainable way—because we have to. The state engineer won’t allow more water to be drawn out than goes back in through runoff and other recharge.”
Scenery and science aside, the most compelling reason to avoid harming Baker is the most abstract: community. Baker’s vibe shows in the expression of 18-year-old Armando Villarreal as he sings a classical song he learned at Eskdale High School; it wafts from the church bake sale, where people have pooled their rhubarb turnovers and cinnamon rolls to raise money for the legal battle; and it rings in kids’ laughter as they shoot each other with plastic cannons during the festival’s (intentionally ironic) water fight.
“A lot of the springs around here have already been affected by pumping,” says Jenny Hamilton, a mother of two. “I’m worried. Without water, we won’t make it.”