Water has always been an issue in the American west. For 90 years, Nevada and six other south-western states have shared the waters of the once-mighty Colorado river, according to an established formula. It became clear, however, that the allocations of water decided in 1922 were overly optimistic about the projected rivers flows of the Colorado. Nevada, which for years has been drawing more water from its Lake Mead reservoir than has been flowing in, could be at serious risk of going dry in 20 years.
Las Vegas needed a Plan B. "When you have got a community of 2 million people and it is 90% reliant on the Colorado river you have to have a contingency plan," Pat Mulroy, the manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority said. Las Vegas, where the population had been doubling every decade until the most recent recession, planners had an idea. They want to tap into groundwater and pump up to 300bn litres of water a year out of valleys in eastern Nevada and transport it 300 miles south to the thirsty metropolis of casinos and golf courses. Opponents of the pipeline say draining the desert of groundwater would destroy the livelihoods of the cattle ranchers, Native American tribes, and Mormon enterprises that call this expanse home, and reduce a vast swath of the state to a dust bowl.
Conservation groups, such as the Great Basin Water Network, accuse Mulroy of an urban water grab. Environmental groups say Las Vegas has not done enough to conserve water, or to explore other solutions.
"It will devastate this part of the state," said Dean Baker He and his sons have grazing rights to 160,000 hectares of land straddling the Utah-Nevada state line. Baker is convinced the scheme would dry up the natural springs that feed his cattle herd and water his alfalfa and hay fields. The federal government's Bureau of Land Management released a study last summer warning the pipeline would lower water tables in some valleys by up to 60 metres over the coming decades. Smaller springs would dry up completely – and the animals that depend on them would die off.