Las Vegas water agency officials are trying to meet demand for water, as the region suffers through one of the worst droughts on record.
To resolve the situation, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) is reconsidering earlier 1989 plan to draw groundwater once slated for irrigation from remote areas, piping it into the Las Vegas area, and compensating farmers for taking land out of production The plans are again spurring protests.
Details of the plan release in February state that it seek to withdraw groundwater from portions of Clark, Lincoln, and White Pine counties, and pipe it into the Las Vegas metropolitan area through a series of aquifers up to 100 miles away. A ruling is expected later this year.
On May 6, the SNWA also filed the largest water-rights request in more than decade, asking the state to allow the agency to drill seven wells in western Clark County. No hearing date has been scheduled.
However, the plan to tap into groundwater north of Las Vegas is not well received by many who see it as a big-city water grab and who fear that it will dry up ranches and ruin wildlife habitat.
Brian Segee, an attorney for Defenders, said drilling in the refuge could have disastrous effects on species such as bighorn sheep, the desert tortoise, and Pahrump pool fish, among others. He said evidence shows that pumping groundwater in one area dries up springs nearby, according to Globe Newspaper Company
''The [wildlife] refuge system is the only public land system set up primarily for wildlife protection," Segee said. ''In the rush to find water, we cannot destroy the areas that make the West what it is."
Water officials say that the plan is in response to the drought and that with construction still booming in Southern Nevada, the agency is being forced to look elsewhere to meet the area's needs. Lake Mead, which now supplies 90 percent of the water being used in the Las Vegas Valley, is at 57 percent capacity, dropping in water level to 1,133 feet above sea level -- down from 1,213 in January 2000.
Despite the growth, the Las Vegas Valley used less water in 2003 than it did the previous year, and figures from the first quarter of 2004 show a similar trend. Nevertheless, a drought emergency could be declared by the end of the year if the lake drops below 1,125 feet.
The authority had always planned to draw remote groundwater, just not so soon, said spokesman Vince Alberta. ''They were to be developed after 2016, but the drought has required us to move sooner than expected and reinforced the need to not solely rely on the Colorado River."
Alberta said SNWA has set long-term goals to ease its reliance on Lake Mead by decreasing the amount of water it draws from the lake to 60 percent.
Alberta said the authority will hold a series of public meetings before it begins drawing groundwater, which is several years away.