On October 13th, I risked the freeways of Las Vegas to meet with Zane Marshall, Director of Environmental Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). I first met Zane during the Devil’s Hole pupfish count, when he was working as a volunteer diver tallying pupfish in the deep parts of the spring. However, I wanted to talk to him in a formal setting about the long-term prognosis for water-dependent species, given the declining level of Lake Mead, the growth of Las Vegas, and the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plans to begin massive groundwater pumping in northern Nevada by 2020.
Zane, who looks to be in his late thirties, holds a Masters in Biology from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He is a life-long resident of Las Vegas who grew up “chasing lizards,” and knew from an early age that he wanted to be a biologist. He has worked for the SNWA for fifteen years, and describes himself as committed to environmental protection. He is married, has two small boys, and is passionate about his work. He believes that biodiversity has intrinsic value, and hopes that his boys will be able to “see what I’ve seen” in the natural world.
We talked for more than two hours about the mission of the SNWA, current water resources in the region, SNWA’s efforts to assume a proactive role in protecting biodiversity and endangered species, and possible effects of withdrawing up to 125,000 acre-feet of water per year from deep carbonate aquifers in northern Nevada. I was struck by several things during our discussion. First, the SNWA takes climate change very seriously, and anticipates that long-term drought will probably decrease the amount of water available from the Colorado River. Second, the SNWA appears to have established credible monitoring and mitigation programs, and is working to ameliorate potential impacts of groundwater withdrawal on the biota of the region – although some environmental groups might dispute this claim. Third, in spite of the complex hydrological models that have been developed for aquifers in the region, no one is certain how the aquifers will respond to groundwater pumping. Fourth, the SNWA has entered into an agreement with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Affairs to work together to protect groundwater-dependent ecosystems in basins that will be affected by pumping. But here’s the problem: protection is defined, in only a very general sense, as occurring when there are “no unreasonable adverse effects.” But what do “unreasonable” and “adverse” mean? And to what extent do those terms depend on one’s perspective? The SNWA’s definitions may be quite different from those of the National Park Service or US Fish and Wildlife Service, and no one has dealt with this problem.
At the end of our talk, I stood up and looked out a window in Zane’s tenth-floor office. The view to the north took in the tangled intersections of three freeways, which were thick with rush hour traffic. Beyond was the sprawl of metropolitan Las Vegas – the strip malls, subdivisions, golf courses, condominiums, and industrial buildings, marching out toward the Spring and Sheep Mountains, twenty miles or more away. When I lived in Las Vegas – off and on, from 1975 through 1979 - there were roughly 400,000 people in the area. Now there are about 2,200,000. By 2035, the SNWA projects that 3,660,000 people will live in the Las Vegas area, which receives less than four inches of rain per year. Lake Mead is dropping, and there is a limit to how much water can be saved through conservation. Ultimately, the SNWA will have to pump more and more groundwater to meet increasing demand. There will, at some point, be “unreasonable adverse impacts;” the water needs of Las Vegas will affect groundwater-dependent ecosystems, and in doing so run headlong into the imperatives of the Endangered Species act. In spite of the best intentions of agencies such as the SNWA, there will be trouble. As I watched traffic crawl along the congested freeways, and contemplated venturing out into the insanity,I wondered how the Devil’s Hole pupfish will survive in the face of such an insatiable thirst. Las Vegas will have its water, but I do not know if the fish will have theirs.