Water Fight in the Great Basin Desert

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

“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.

In 1989 Las Vegas water officials were concerned that nearly 90 percent of the city’s water supply came from the dwindling Colorado River, so they proposed a massive underground pipeline that would transport water to Las Vegas Valley from 30 basins spread across four Nevada counties. The proposal never gained much traction until Vegas’ population boomed in the late 1990s and SNWA ramped up its campaign. To succeed, SNWA would need two key permits which hinged on one of its most difficult tasks: silencing the conservationists, ranchers, business owners, and American Indians who had joined together to stop the project. It is a diverse group with deep roots, and one whose resilience matches the bristlecone pine, a conifer found in Great Basin National Park that can live upwards of 5,000 years.

On a cool morning this past October, a passenger bus chartered by dozens of American Indians–ages 7 months to 75 years–sped down Highway 50 toward Carson City, Nevada’s capital. To these travelers, who consider their people stewards of Great Basin Desert for more than 12,000 years, water is more precious than gold. The goal of the bus trip, dubbed the “Groundwater Express,” was to protest SNWA’s idea to strip precious groundwater from the ancestral hunting, fishing, and farming lands surrounding the Basin’s five federally recognized tribes.

“This is a direct threat to our survival,” said Ed Naranjo, council member and administrator for the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute. “Our culture, spirituality, and livelihood are based on diverse natural resources in Great Basin, the most vital of which is water.”

“Our prayers begin and end with water,” added Madeline Greymountain, a tribal council member. “Water is for healing and cleansing body and soul. People live through water as water lives through us.”

One month later, I traveled to Baker, Nevada–ground zero for the groundwater protest. As a full moon rose above the Snake Range, I arrived at the Border Inn, a truck stop/convenience store/motel-restaurant/casino that straddles the Nevada-Utah border in the scenic Snake Valley. The inn’s tiny bar was crowded with ranchers, hunters, and two Ely Shoshone Indians watching a live feed of Dean Baker testifying before the state engineer about the ill-conceived water grab. “I hope these applications are not approved at this time,” Baker said. “A new approach must be used that protects existing rights and the environment and does not allow the large potential impacts created by this large, long-length, inter-basin transfer that will be impossible to shut down.” While the West may have been forged by rugged individualism, it was clear to Baker and those watching at the Border Inn that only cooperation can save it.

“The protest has certainly had a unifying effect across the county,” said Gary Perea, a White Pine County commissioner and co-owner of the Border Inn. “It has taken people of different interests and perspectives and really brought them together.”

“By uniting, we are much stronger than if we went at it alone,” added Susan Lynn, administrator of the Great Basin Water Network, a nonprofit that represents more than 100 groups and individuals working to oppose the pipeline.

As Dean Baker finished his testimony, the mood at the Border Inn lifted, and a sense of pride seemed to fill the room. With more than 77,000 mountainous acres, five distinct habitats, 71 kinds of mammals, 18 types of reptiles, and 800 different plant species, the Great Basin Desert contains a stunning diversity of flora and fauna. Park Superintendent Andy Ferguson is quick to point out that pumping groundwater from Snake Valley–an area that averages less than 10 inches of precipitation a year–isn’t a good idea and could affect the park’s vast network of caves.

Ferguson also refers to the possibility of Snake and Spring Valleys turning into dust bowls should the water table drop and deep-rooted plants such as greasewood lose touch with moisture and die. The mountainous national park, which rises thousands of feet above the valley floors, would surely suffer. Along with harming plants, animals, and reducing visibility–including clouding up some of the darkest star-gazing sky in the country–the dust would also collect on the snow, causing it to melt faster, thus exacerbating the water loss.

The next morning, Tom Baker, Dean’s son, pulled up in his truck and I hopped in. Tom had generously offered to give me a tour of the 12,000-acre family ranch, home to 2,000 head of cattle and crops of alfalfa, barley, corn, and grass seed. As we bounced down dirt roads, he told me of their constant struggle to find water, of drought years when pumps were “sucking air” and of wells dug a thousand feet into the earth that came up dry. “We are caretakers of the land, and we manage it for production,” he stated. “There’s no production if the land isn’t good and there’s no wildlife. We aren’t managing the land for today; we’re managing it for the future.”

The truck came to a stop beside a wood cabin from the mid-1800s. We ascended a small hill, where the vegetation suddenly turned green and two mallards shot into the sky. Then I heard the exquisite sound of water and spotted a spring winding through the reeds like a string of liquid diamonds in the desert rough.

My host crouched down and pointed to a small spot, bubbling in the sand underwater: the source. I hunkered low and looked. The sight of water rising up from the stark desert had an unexpectedly strong impact on me. Perhaps it was testifying to the unconquerable spirit of people who call the Great Basin Desert home.

“It’s always amazing to me where it appears,” Tom Baker said, standing. “A guy never tires of watching water.”

Kevin Grange is a freelance writer in California. His first travel memoir, Beneath Blossom Rain, was published in April. Excerpted from National Parks(Spring 2012), the quarterly publication of the National Parks Convservation Association.

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