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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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“I’m just collateral damage,” Vogler says. “I was born with a double recessive mutant gene to be what I am -- a dumb-ass sheeper -- and I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t want to be a banker, don’t want to be a lawyer, I hate politicians. This is me, this is what I’m supposed to do.”

Vogler has spent 29 years in the area -- about the same amount of time as the people in Las Vegas have been scheming for his water. The Las Vegas Valley Water District filed the first water rights permits for the pipeline with the State Engineer in 1989. It sought groundwater rights in five valleys — Spring, Snake, Delamar, Dry Lake, and Cave. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, at Mulroy’s urging, was formed in 1991 and it’s been working ever since for the rights to pipe what’s beneath eastern Nevada to the Las Vegas area.

In 2012, they moved a whole lot closer to that goal. In March, the State Engineer gave them some — but not all — of what they were hoping for. He granted SNWA 83,900 acre-feet of groundwater rights in Spring, Cave, Delamar, and Dry Lake valleys. They wanted over 100,000 acre-feet and access to Snake Valley, as well. But that may come with time. Then, at the end of December, the Bureau of Land Management permitted the building of the project, which will mostly rest on federal lands.

It’s not a small project. The BLM’s decision gives SNWA permission to build a main pipeline, with two laterals, totaling 263 miles; power lines 251 miles long; three pump stations; six electrical substations; a water treatment facility; an underground water reservoir and permanent and temporary roads.

By the time they get done building it all, Vogler estimates that they’ll need even more water to quench thirsty Las Vegas. “They won’t quit until they drain the entire state of Nevada for Las Vegas,” says Vogler. He’s heard about the water authority buying up ranches and along with it, water rights, in his valley for years. Vogler doesn’t own enough water for a pricey buyout offer. “I didn’t even get an opportunity to tell them I wouldn’t sell to them anyway,” he says.

But Dean Baker did get the chance. In his 70s, he runs Baker Ranch along with his three sons. The biggest patch of green you’ll see for many miles in eastern Nevada, the ranch sprawls 12,000 acres from under the shadow of nearby Great Basin National Park’s Wheeler Peak in the town of Baker (which gets its name from its founder, George W. Baker, no relation to Dean and the present Bakers who’ve owned the ranch since the 1950s).

Dean Baker’s clan does go back five generations in eastern Nevada and western Utah. Over time they’ve built the ranch into a large enterprise, producing over a million pounds of beef and thousands of tons of hay, some of it used to sustain California’s dairies.

They use pivot irrigation, creating bright green circles in the otherwise vast expanse of dusty brown and muted green. As a result, over the years Dean Baker has seen springs dry up and groundwater levels drop. In places, he says the drawdown has been significant. But the Bakers have learned to work within the limits of the desert, and they’ve learned a thing or two about how much water is in the area — and so have the wildlife that have moved from the springs to the ranch’s irrigated acres and ponds. Baker boasts of the migratory birds, antelope, deer, cranes, grouse and ducks that visit his ranch.

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