How an unlikely alliance of conservationists, ranchers, business owners, and American Indians is fighting to save the Great Basin.
By Kevin Grange
It was one of those phone calls that could change everything. The kind where you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard that first, life-altering ring. For Dean Baker, that call came in 2006 and found him in the same spot he’d been since 1959—his 12,000-acre ranch in rural Nevada.
“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 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 has “no communication with the sea,” in the words of John C. Fremont, who named the area in 1843. Instead, all of the smaller basins in the 200,000-square-mile area that constitutes the Great Basin 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. With more than 300 ranges and 42 peaks topping 11,000 feet, 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 (see map on page 52). The proposal never gained much traction until Vegas’ population boomed in the late 1990s and SNWA ramped up its campaign to build the massive pipeline to move up to 155,000 acre-feet of groundwater—enough to fill a good-sized lake. To succeed, SNWA would need two key permits: one from the state engineer granting the water rights, and another from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) granting permission to build the pipeline through federal land. But those permits hinge on one of SNWA’s 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. Even local ranchers who had initially opposed the creation of the national park in 1986 passionately joined the protest. Although the Great Basin kangaroo rat doesn’t need much water to survive, the locals do, and they are fighting for it.
On a cool morning this past October, a passenger bus chartered by dozens of American Indians—ages seven 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 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.”
At a lunchtime rally at the Nevada capitol the following day, the Goshutes, Ely Shoshone Tribe, and Paiute Tribe of Utah sang water songs and chanted prayers as if their lives depended on it. Which, of course, they do.
One month later, I traveled to Baker, Nevada—12 miles from Great Basin National Park and ground zero for the groundwater protest—to see if I could find some water. 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, two Ely Shoshone Indians, and in the adjoining office, another group of locals huddled around a desktop computer, 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. “We coordinate the protests, but others participate by providing technical expertise, research, and urging their members or partners to comment publicly when necessary. Sometimes, it’s a church hosting discussion groups or a school whose students write letters or draw pictures. Sometimes it’s seniors who address mail or a public relations firm that helps us design and print educational brochures, or service organizations using their phone trees to educate others. There are so many ways for people to do a small piece.”
Given the amount of construction necessary to build the pipeline, Perea and his mother and business partner, Denys Koyle, could certainly make a lot of money selling gas, food, and lodging to construction crews in the short term. But they are far more interested in protecting the valley and its strong pioneering spirit. “You need a certain mindset towards life out here,” said Koyle. “We want people to know there’s value in rural areas and in the people who chose to live there.”
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 contains a stunning diversity of flora and fauna. But I was there to find out about the water—specifically the park’s four stream systems, nine miles of stream habitat, 18 wetland areas, and 25 perennial springs that could be affected by the pipeline. So the next morning, I made the short drive to Great Basin National Park to tour the Lehman Caves, an exquisite collection of limestone stalactites, stalagmites, and draperies dripping down from the ceiling like candlewax. “The caves are a result of water,” park guide Peter Super informed me and two tourists, “specifically acidic water, which carved the limestone rock you see.”
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. Many caves are located close to one another and their entrances look quite similar, which suggests they were formed by a single drainage network. Deep-seated hydrothermal waters influenced the features of other caves, and since no sunlight penetrates far beyond the cave’s entrance, every resident from millipede, cricket, and spider to the western big-eared bat relies on the nutrients and organisms that water brings into the cave.
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.
Then there’s the impact on the community. “Towns like Baker and [nearby] Garrison are important gateway towns that have really supported the Park Service,” Ferguson stated. “And when people visit the park, they need somewhere to eat, sleep, and get gas.”
In other words, if you dry up the gateway towns, you dry up tourism.
In the cave, Ranger Super suddenly flicked off his flashlight and everything went black. “Can you hear any water?” he asked our group. At first there was only darkness and silence. Then a single, solitary drop of water fell, echoing in the distance.
Super flicked on the light. “That’s good luck,” he said. “We’ve just been given a cave kiss.”
The next morning—my last in the Great Basin—I realized that with the exception of the isolated drop in Lehman Caves, I had yet to find water. 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. I’d all but given up my search for water until 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. Maybe the spring was whispering something about grace. Or perhaps it was just testifying to the unconquerable spirit of people who call the Great Basin home.
“It’s always amazing to me where it appears,” Tom Baker said, standing. “A guy never tires of watching water.”
The Southern Nevada Water Authority maintains it is only seeking water that is “unused” in the aquifers and that not having a reliable long-term water supply could cause a 10 percent drop in the metropolitan Las Vegas economy—the equivalent of losing 80,000 jobs. The National Parks Conservation Association, Great Basin Water Network, and new allies such as the Mormon Church argue that a pipeline will cause irreparable harm to the environment and that taking a $15-billion bet on poorly studied aquifers is a risky gamble, even for Vegas. Nevada’s state engineer is expected to make a decision on Spring Valley by March, and the hearings for Snake Valley have yet to be scheduled. Although the future of water resources surrounding Great Basin National Park hangs in a delicate balance—much like the Great Basin itself—one thing is certain: This unlikely coalition of conservationists, rural ranchers, small business owners, and American Indians won’t stop fighting.
“It has been a tumultuous journey,” declared Madeline Greymountain, “but we are warriors, and we will keep moving forward. I promise.”