For decades, the Great Basin Water Network has made a point of strange bedfellowing. Its ranks include ranchers, environmentalists, sportsmen, rural county commissioners, Indigenous leaders, water users from Utah, and rural and urban Nevadans. Over the years, these groups united against a single cause: the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s “Groundwater Development Project,” a proposal to pump 58 billion gallons of water a year 300 miles to Las Vegas from the remote rural valleys of Nevada and Utah. Nevadans called it the Las Vegas Pipeline; its ardent foes called it a water grab. In May, their three decades of resistance to the pipeline ended in victory: The project was terminated.
“Never give up the ship,” Delaine Spilsbury, an Ely Shoshone tribal elder who played a significant role in the Water Network, said in a recent interview. “Never. That’s the kind of feeling that I think most of us had. Just do the best we can and let’s make something happen, even if it does take forever.”
The Vegas Pipeline, had it succeeded, threatened to make a dust bowl of 305 springs, 112 miles of streams, 8,000 acres of wetlands and 191,000 acres of shrubland habitat, almost all of it on public lands. Major utilities in the West rarely fail in getting what they want (witness California’s Owens Valley, circa 1913), but the Water Network’s multipronged, intergenerational legal battle creates a different precedent, showing that diverse water interests can transcend any single approach or ideology — and win.
UNEXPECTED ALLIANCES like this have their origins in the Cold War. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the Air Force sought to conduct hazardous testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles and supersonic military operations in eastern Nevada. This required deep drilling into newfound aquifers, and tribal nations, rural counties, ranchers and environmentalists became increasingly distrustful of the massive groundwater pumping. They put their differences aside to mobilize public opinion and beat back two federal projects — the Missile Experimental (“MX”) and the Electronic Combat Test Capability (“ECTC”).
Their single-minded focus on water and ability to tease out a strategy from a broad coalition of people proved an asset in resisting powerful entities. “We beat the federal government,” said Abby Johnson, who worked for a statewide environmental group fighting the MX project and later helped form the Great Basin Water Network. “It never would have happened had there not been such activism against it. The public opposition and outcry across rural Nevada was essential.”
This united front endured into 1989, when the Las Vegas Valley Water District filed 146 water right applications with the Nevada state engineer — the state’s top water regulator — to pump 800,000 acre-feet of groundwater from eastern Nevada. The former anti-nuclear coalition organized area residents again — this time against their own state, filing protests with the state engineer’s office. Great Basin National Park and the Bureau of Land Management, concerned that groundwater withdrawals could affect surface-water resources under their jurisdiction, also filed protests.
The water applications sat dormant for over a decade. But in 2002, in the face of worsening drought and looming supply shortages on the Colorado River, the newly formed Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) reactivated the water filings. By 2005, the SNWA requested legal hearings. That was “when the project caught steam and really began,” said Steve Erickson, an organizer with the Water Network in Utah, who worked closely with residents in Baker, Nevada. “This was a feisty group of people, and they had worked on this stuff before. They knew they could win if they were persistent.”
In 2007, the Great Basin Water Network received nonprofit status, formalizing the coalition. It partnered with rural county governments to help pay for expert witnesses and legal representation in court, and established “water tours,” in order to teach Nevadans how the region’s landscape of springs, seeps and streams sustained a uniquely Nevadan way of life. These efforts helped establish the pipeline in the public imagination as another water grab.
But despite these advances, there was a breakdown in trust, as state and federal agencies greenlit the project, circumventing bedrock environmental laws. A 2004 federal wilderness bill included a rider granting the SNWA a public utilities right-of-way for the project, facilitating its approval. In 2006, the Department of Interior — including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which failed to consult the tribes it represents — entered a closed-door agreement with the SNWA, dropping all federal protests in exchange for a contentious monitoring and mitigation plan.
A series of legal battles ensued at the state level. The Water Network’s initial legal strategy, which focused on due process rather than water law, ultimately prevailed in 2010 at the Nevada Supreme Court, which found that “the state engineer was ‘derelict in his duties,’ ” as Kyle Roerink, the Executive Director of the Water Network, said in a recent interview. The court’s decision voided SNWA’s water applications, forcing the Water Authority to re-file them with the state engineer, who in turn reopened the protest period.
The Water Network applied pressure from multiple angles, though, and the legal wins continued on other fronts. Activists successfully argued, for example, that the state engineer miscalculated the water levels in the basins where the Southern Nevada Water Authority wanted to pump, allowing for over-allocations. Their efforts convinced a district court to order the state engineer to recalculate.
Beyond its legal strategy, the Water Network built alliances geographically — notably with ranchers, farmers, and county commissioners in western Utah, who followed in lockstep with the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute there and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and public health, citizen science and conservation groups across the state. By 2015, their efforts convinced the Republican governor of Utah, Gary Herbert, to reject a bi-state water agreement that would have allowed the SNWA to pull water from the Snake Valley, in the Nevada-Utah borderlands. “The governor was getting pressure from all sides,” Erickson said. “At one time, he had three water lawyers and the director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources telling him to sign the agreement. But he listened to us.”
The Southern Nevada Water Authority, meanwhile, undertook its own political strategy — lobbying the state Legislature to change Nevada water law, then lobbying the Nevada congressional delegation to exempt the project from further federal environmental review, even as it aggressively promoted conservation measures and engineered a low-level intake pump at Lake Mead to secure its pumping capacities.
The Water Network’s continued pressure, applied from multiple angles, ultimately paid off. In March, the Nevada District Court denied the SNWA’s appeal for a final time — blocking it from pumping any water in eastern Nevada. After a string of seven straight legal losses, the SNWA announced that it would not appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court. In May, at its Board of Directors meeting, the Water Authority withdrew all its remaining water applications associated with the project, ending a 31-year battle.
Delaine Spilsbury, the Ely Shoshone leader, watched the board meeting via a video call. “I yelled at my son, Rick, ‘Get the champagne! — Get the champagne!’ It was hard to believe that it was happening. When it’s been that way for so long, you never think it will change.”
NEVADA HAS A LONG HISTORY of resource extraction, everything from gold, to rare earth minerals, to water. And the state is by no means a regulatory haven for environmental causes. But the defeat of the SNWA, along with other recent data, suggests that public opinion around natural resources, especially water, is changing. Since 2002, southern Nevada’s population has increased by 46%, but its per capita water usage has decreased 38%, and its consumption of Colorado River water is down 25%. The SNWA’s own partnerships up and down the Colorado River, and the Great Basin Water Network’s unexpected partnerships within the state, point to a larger shift.
Regardless of these changing attitudes, and the Water Network win, the decades-long battle produced collateral damage: deep mistrust between Nevada’s rural residents and the state, especially the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Tom Baker, a fourth-generation rancher in the Snake Valley, understands as much. “We knew we could never let SNWA start at all,” he said recently, “because once they started, they would keep going. We knew that the amount of water they wanted wasn’t actually there. As soon as they figured that out too, they would have to keep expanding. Rural Nevada is very lucky that this project is finished.”
Such criticism is understandable, Simeon Herskovits, the Water Network’s longtime lawyer, said. “There is a long history of deceit and punitive actions taken by SNWA towards rural folks,” he said. As recently as 2019, for example, the agency tried to change state laws that protect senior water-rights holders in Nevada, such as farmers and ranchers in rural counties. The legislation would have allowed the state engineer to re-award the rights to junior users. “That meant there was no opportunity for trust. Rural interests knew there was no way they could take SNWA at its word.”
Pat Mulroy herself, former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the architect of the now-failed project, agreed. Asked what she would have done differently on the Vegas Pipeline, she quickly responded: “Nothing we said or did was going to persuade them. We are city folk. People in the rural areas don’t trust us.” But then she paused, and turned the thought. “Look,” she said, “these battles are not going away. It is one of the divides, and there has to be bridges. Every move we made — whether with farmers in Utah or ranchers in White Pine County — they said no. That, to me, is the tragedy. This will never change unless people are willing to talk to one another.”
Eric Siegel is an editorial intern for High Country News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a letter to the editor.