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Rapid Urban Growth Strains Nevada’s Natural Resources

November 14, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, day three of our Big Picture trip to Nevada, one of the early political caucus states. Judy Woodruff and Ray Suarez are talking to people in and around Las Vegas all week about the issues that matter to them this election year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Here in Nevada, Jim, voters will be looking to the presidential candidates for answers to issues that affect all Americans. But they’ll also be listening for issues that are magnified here in the western states, issues like the best use of limited natural resources.

Ray Suarez has our report.

RAY SUAREZ: The Great Basin of Nevada is an arid region of mountain ranges, meadows, and bubbling streams. What little precipitation falls here quickly evaporates or becomes ground water. None of it escapes to the ocean.

It’s in these peaceful valleys that a fierce battle has begun over water and electricity, growth and sustainability.

DEAN BAKER, Rancher: How long will you keep these in here before you ship them to market?

RAY SUAREZ: For decades, Cecil Garland and Dean Baker have ranched the land here about five hours north of Las Vegas. In this desert climate, they need to irrigate 70 days a year to grow alfalfa for their cattle. But now the city of Las Vegas wants to take some of that water, and the ranchers say that could mean the end of their way of life.

DEAN BAKER: It has the potential of putting us out of business. There are studies that have shown that it will draw the water table down for most of the vegetation that put their roots into the water, which is the entire vegetation almost in the valley bottom will die.

CECIL GARLAND, Rancher: I hate to see this valley die or any other valley die in order to supply water to a metropolis, because we grow food. Most people like to eat, I think. And we grow good food.

Diminishing water supply

Cecil Garland
Those people down there are going to have to learn to conserve, have to live within the limits of their own ability to grow, and they have to recognize that. So far as I can tell, they're not willing to do that yet.

RAY SUAREZ: It's a fight replicated in states all over the west, a tug-of-war for water between rural and urban interests that's gotten more heated as years of drought take their toll.

CECIL GARLAND: Perhaps the fundamental question is what we're going to do with our water, crops or craps?

RAY SUAREZ: Current plans are to build a multibillion-dollar pipeline to transport ground water 250 miles south to Las Vegas. It would be the largest project of its kind in the country, and proponents say it would reduce the city's reliance on water from the Colorado River Basin stored in Lake Mead.

These have been dry years for southern Nevada and for the surrounding states that rely on Lake Mead for their drinking water. Every year this decade, those thirsty communities have pulled more water out of the lake than has been replaced.

This marina has had to chase the receding shoreline hundreds of feet from where boats used to arrive and depart. This land I'm standing on was once well underneath the surface of the lake. In fact, like a bathtub ring, that salt stain marks what used to be the surface of Lake Mead.

PAT MULROY, Southern Nevada Water Authority: From a planning perspective, we're assuming the worst.

RAY SUAREZ: Pat Mulroy is called the water czar of Las Vegas.

PAT MULROY: We have to protect this community from that drought, and there's only one way to do it, and that's develop a water supply that is hydrologically separate and apart and not connected in any way to the Colorado River.

So that project is not driven by growth; that project is being driven by what we see the consequences of climate change are on the Colorado River Basin.

RAY SUAREZ: Mulroy argues Las Vegas actually uses only about 10 percent of the state's water, compared to nearly 80 percent consumed by ranchers and farmers up north. And while she says she doesn't want to compromise the food that's grown in the region, it may be time to rethink whether it makes sense to have so many irrigated farms in areas that are naturally so dry.

PAT MULROY: It's the culture of the west, and a lot of what we're talking about here is cultural. You have, what, fifth-, sixth-generation families that have grown up on farms and have lived on farms and on ranches, and you're changing their reality.

And it will be difficult for them to envision it in a different way. I think there's a natural evolution already occurring where some of the less profitable, more difficult to ranch areas are already selling out.

RAY SUAREZ: Those are fighting words to ranchers.

CECIL GARLAND: We're not down there trying to Las Vegas' water. They're up here trying to take our water. That's the simple truth of it. And the point is that in the southwest, with an ever-exploding growing human population, it's on a collision course with the amount of water.

Those people down there are going to have to learn to conserve, have to live within the limits of their own ability to grow, and they have to recognize that. So far as I can tell, they're not willing to do that yet.

Urban conservation efforts

Pat Mulroy
Southern Nevada Water Authority
We are paying our customers to take grass out. In fact, we've taken out enough turf to go halfway around the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Mulroy admits that, in the 1970s and '80s, people in Las Vegas didn't pay much attention to water conservation, putting in vast turf lawns that required lots of water, but she says that's changed. New developments are severely limited in how much grass can be planted, and the city recycles all water that's used in homes, buildings and outdoor fountains.

PAT MULROY: Despite all the growth that we're talking about here, this community reduced the amount of water that it's been using by 65,000 acre feet. In 2002, we were taking 325,000 acre feet a year out of Lake Mead. By 2004, we had dropped down to 270,000, and we're holding at 270,000, despite the growth.

We are paying our customers to take grass out. In fact, we've taken out enough turf to go halfway around the world. We've put the community on restrictions that are permanent, in terms of when to water and how to water.

RAY SUAREZ: As if Nevada's water war wasn't enough, there also is a brewing fight over building new coal-burning power plants in northern Nevada, not far from the pipeline site to keep the lights on in Las Vegas. Michael Yackira is the CEO of Nevada Power.

MICHAEL YACKIRA, Nevada Power: The problem that Nevada has is that we're well short of the capacity that we have within the state to provide the electrical demand for our customers, so we need to build power plants.

It's not for the love of coal as a fuel as much as a desire to have a balanced portfolio. We are very dependent upon natural gas to produce electricity in our state. About 70 percent of our power comes from conversion of natural gas into electricity; that's too much dependence on one fuel source.

Looking for alternative energy

Jon Hickman
Mayor of Ely, Nev.
We need more stable type of jobs, high-paying jobs. And every time we get better, high-paying jobs, it makes the quality of life better.

RAY SUAREZ: But the plan for new coal plants is meeting stiff opposition from some politicians and environmentalists.

SCOTT RUTLEDGE, Nevada Conservation League: There's no such thing as clean coal. We're still not reducing our CO-2 emissions, and that's a real concern, in terms of climate change.

RAY SUAREZ: Scott Rutledge is the director of the Nevada Conservation League. He says Nevada should be spending more money developing alternative energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal.

Nevada Power does buy a small fraction of its electricity from this brand-new, 64-megawatt solar thermal plant about an hour south of Las Vegas, but that's only enough power for about 14,000 homes a year. Rutledge says, in the long run, expanding solar makes much more economic sense than building new coal plants, which he says will only get more costly to operate because of future carbon taxes and more difficult to obtain coal.

SCOTT RUTLEDGE: It's going to take a lot more money and a lot more time. It's going to do a lot more devastation to the environment. And we're removing mountain tops to get coal in the Appalachians. It's sort of like a red flag, I would think, for most of us to say, "Wait a minute, how are we living? Why are we doing this?"

RAY SUAREZ: But unlike the opposition to the water pipeline, a majority of people who live up in northern Nevada support building new coal plants for one reason.

MAYOR JON HICKMAN, Ely, Nevada: We need more stable type of jobs, high-paying jobs. And every time we get better, high-paying jobs, it makes the quality of life better.

RAY SUAREZ: Jon Hickman is the mayor of Ely, a small boom-and-bust mining town of 5,000 people. Town officials estimate some 1,200 jobs could be created with all of the construction and support jobs related to the plants, and the town would collect tax revenue by leasing out its railroad.

But rancher Cecil Garland thinks people in Ely are short-sighted, wanting to trade clean air for jobs.

CECIL GARLAND: Nevada and western Utah is not a wasteland. I wish people would get that through their heads. This is not a wasteland. It's not a place to come here and dump everything that you couldn't possibly put somewhere else.

RAY SUAREZ: Garland doesn't want to sacrifice the Great Basin to benefit growth in Las Vegas, but city planners warn stunting growth could be an economic disaster for the entire state.

With no easy answers, Nevadans may look to the presidential candidates to provide ideas on how to strike a balance.