Water Fight in the Great Basin Desert

An alliance has formed to stop the Southern Nevada Water Authority from buying water rights that would drain the national park of the Great Basin Desert.


| July/August 2012



Bristlecone Pine Tree

The bristlecone pine tree is one of the defining features of the Great Basin.

FRANK KOVALCHECK / FLICKR.COM/PHOTOS/72213316@N00

“So you’re really not going to sell?” a voice asked.

It was a representative from the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). During the past few months, SNWA had been buying up ranches for top-dollar prices in the Spring and Snake Valleys—two valleys that border Great Basin National Park to the east and to the west. The plan: Buy out the ranchers, snatch up their water rights, then build a massive, 306-mile pipeline to ship billions of gallons of groundwater from the Great Basin Desert to parched Las Vegas.

The Robison Ranch in Spring Valley had just sold for $22 million. Dean Baker and his three sons owned twice as much land and three times the water rights, which meant, by all accounts, they’d just won the lottery. But to the Bakers, some things in life are more important than money.

“We’ve been telling you for three years,” Dean replied. “We’re not selling.”

When the SNWA rep said he assumed the Bakers were just holding out for a higher price, Baker pondered his decision once again. Selling would grant his family the easy life and more money than they could ever hope to spend. Staying meant years of more hard work, and opposing the pipeline would be the toughest fight of their lives. Then again, staying also meant years of honoring what Dean loves most: watching things grow—his crops, his cattle, his family. “We’re not selling,” Baker said resolutely.

More than 43 million years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions caused the earth’s mantle to stretch, creating the Great Basin—a group of mountain ranges separated by flat, expansive valleys. Bookended by the Sierras to the west and the Wasatch Range to the east, the Great Basin covers most of Nevada, half of Utah, and dips its topographic toe into California, Idaho, Oregon, and Wyoming. The mountains are impressive but the Basin’s true miracle rests with its water. The precipitation that falls in the Great Basin Desert has “no communication with the sea,” in the words of John C. Fremont, who named the area in 1843. Instead, all of the basins in the 200,000-square-mile area drain internally. The rain and snow that fall here evaporate, pool into lakes, or sink deep into the gravel subsurface, where they recharge aquifers left over from the ice ages. Underground, the water slowly migrates toward the Great Salt Lake and along the way occasionally—almost miraculously—bubbles up through the dry desert as a spring. Nevada is the heart of the Great Basin. It is also at the heart of SNWA’s plan to get more water.