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Reno Journal-Gazette, February 28, 2014

Will the SNWA pipeline doom the endangered sage grouse?
By Rob Mrowka

Even in Las Vegas, a city long defined by the perpetual lure of something-for-nothing dreams, the shortsighted scheme to suck 27 billion gallons of water a year from aquifers in eastern Nevada has never come close to passing any test of logic or fairness, let alone environmental law.

That’s why a Nevada judge in December ruled that state officials failed to adequately assess the pipeline’s impacts on the fragile spring-fed pockets of desert life that have thrived in eastern Nevada for millions of years. And it’s why a broad coalition of local governments, tribes and conservation groups filed legal petitions recently asking a judge to overturn the poorly considered decisions by the Interior Department and Bureau of Land Management to grant a right-of-way for the 265-mile pipeline.

Much of the debate regarding the groundwater development project rightly has focused on the irreversible destruction of streams and springs and the unique aquatic species that depend on them. But often lost in the discussion has been the inevitable harm the project will pose for the increasingly rare sage grouse, the iconic Western bird that depends on the deep-rooted sagebrush for its survival.

Known as a sagebrush-obligate species, the sage grouse requires large areas of sagebrush for its survival throughout all four seasons. That’s why it’s so disturbing that the Bureau of Land Management estimates that more than 200 square miles of sagebrush and related shrub habitat could disappear because of this misguided project.

Over the decades, as the SWNA project siphons vast quantities of water from the eastern Nevada desert, the roots of these shrubs will lose contact with the dropping groundwater levels. Sagebrush will then disappear and the landscape will be turned into a barren dust bowl, devoid of the vegetation that has supported wildlife for eons.

One of the results will be that sage grouse, long considered a symbol of the West, no longer will be able to survive in the heart of its historic habitat. These remarkable birds once numbered in the millions, but today scientists estimate that fewer than 200,000 remain across 11 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.

The groundwater development project could be the final threat to push the grouse into the protections of the Endangered Species Act.

As Western legislators and governors do everything in their power to assure federal regulators that states are committed to recovering sage grouse populations and federal protections aren’t needed, Las Vegas leaders are still pushing forward a project that could well lead to the listing of the grouse.

John Entsminger, the new general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, admits that ultimately the only answer is conservation, recently stating, “The era of big water transfers is either over, or it’s rapidly coming to an end. It sure looks like in the 21st century, we’re all going to have to use less water.”

Despite the Las Vegas area’s stepped up efforts to conserve and recycle water in recent years, they can and must do much better, and the good news is cuts in water use can be achieved without draconian measures.

Reliable studies have shown water-use rates of 170 gallons per person a day in Las Vegas is a reasonable goal. The savings from the current 220 gallons could support reasoned growth. And in a couple of decades, when de-salted water is needed, it will be pumped from the coast using solar power.

In the meantime, let’s not allow politicians and pundits to pull us into a misleading debate on whether we need to protect Nevada’s fragile and irreplaceable environment or its growth-based economy.

A growing number of Nevadans understand that the key to ensuring the long-term health of our environment and our economy is to understand they are one in the same.

Rob Mrowka is senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity in North Las Vegas.


Copyright © 2014 www.rgj.com. 

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton