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Las Vegas Accused of Engineering Massive Water Grab: Is This the Future of the West? [With Photo Slideshow]

Climate change is going to make life harder, water scarcer, and decisions about the future tougher.

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SNWA is in the midst of an $800 million project to insert another “straw” into Lake Mead. This is the third intake pipe built for the lake — the last two proved not deep enough to keep up with the lake’s falling levels. But this is just part of the plan. Another part comes with a bigger pricetag — estimated as high as $15 billion -- and involves building hundreds of miles of water pipelines and related infrastructure to tap water from four rural valleys in eastern Nevada’s White Pine and Lincoln counties.

SNWA sees the water pipeline as a necessity, while others see it as a might-makes-right water grab. The project also speaks volumes about how we’re planning for the future and what we’re prepared to sacrifice if times get tough. And indeed, those times may already be upon us.

Threatened Communities

Most people can conjure Las Vegas in their minds — either they’ve been there or they’ve seen it immortalized in movies, TV and photos. Fewer people may know what Baker, Nevada looks like, or the kind of folks who live there. Census data from 2010 puts the number of residents at 363. The only reason it appear on maps is that it’s the nearest town to Great Basin National Park. If you’ve never heard of GBNP that’s because it’s the second least visited national park in the country — which, in many ways is a great shame; the park is astoundingly beautiful and rolls from high desert sage up to 13,000-foot Wheeler Peak.

The area has that desert resolve, a sense of endurance, a slow plod from the last ice age forward. There have been thousands of years of human history on top of the lifting and tilting of the earth that set things in place, and the erosion that’s come since. There have been the Fremont and the Shoshone and the Paiute and the Spanish and the Mormons and the homesteaders. There are people today living in houses insulated with 1800s-era newspapers stuffed into the walls. But the oldest residents of the area are Great Basin bristlecone pines, the oldest living tree.

Bristlecone pines grow in harsh, high-altitude conditions, just below the treeline. Unlike ancient sequoias and redwoods, bristlecones are far from towering — they’re short, sinewy and sprout green, brush-like needles. They can live for thousands of years — some are nearly 5,000 years old.

Baker and GBNP sit on the eastern edge of Nevada in the Snake Valley, abutting Utah. It’s gritty, but beautiful. Population density may be low, but the people who live there are not insignificant and neither are the vast swathes of land, though they appear desolate. In neighboring Spring Valley, you’ll find even less people.

“Neighbor?” asks Spring Valley rancher Hank Vogler, who lives about 50 miles east of Ely (the nearest “big” town, population 4,288). “I don’t know what that term means.” Vogler raises sheep and cattle in the rugged high desert at more than 6,000 feet. He has access to small quantities of stock water rights — enough to keep his animals — but nowhere near the amount that’s used for irrigating agriculture. “All of my water rights together wouldn’t fill a swimming pool in Las Vegas,” he says. He’s got enough water to make a living, but not a fortune. His entire livelihood is tied to that water — what he can pump out of the ground, or what seeps to the surface after a rain. And he believes his family will be one of the first sacrificed if SNWA builds its pipeline.

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