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Stakes Rise in Vegas Water Dispute

City proposal to tap underground aquifer has embroiled ranchers and environmentalists. PEACH TREES OR GOLF COURSES?

HANK RECORDS says rural Nevadans are ready to get their guns. "If Las Vegas comes out here to take our water, they'll absolutely dry us up," says the Stetson-topped rancher, kicking the pointed gray toes of his boots into the dusty soil. Six years ago, a minion for the state water engineer tried to get Mr. Records to cap wells on this 400-acre ranch where he has cultivated peaches, plums, and alfalfa for 41 years.

"I looked him in the eye and said, 'Don't you ever come back on my land without waving a federal court order, Records says. The rancher says that for as long as he has worked this land, local, state, or federal government officials have been after his water.

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Last week, Records and ranchers all over Nevada got a chance to hear details of the biggest state water proposal yet: to drill 146 wells in 28 different valley basins over four counties. Designated use - Las Vegas.

Because the city of casinos grew faster than any major city in America in the 1980s - from 463,087 to 741,459 (62 percent) - demand for water is expected to exceed supplies in four years.

"By the year 2006, you won't be able to build another home or business here," says Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District (LVWD). Because the city says it expects to double in size again by 2050, the case is being closely watched by several states - including neighboring California and Utah, whose water supplies could also be affected by the proposed wells.

"The water wars of the West are going to be the problem of this century because we have just too many people, uncontrolled growth," says Jane Fisher, the current mayor of Bishop in California's Owens Valley. The town has filed a formal protest against the plan; bitterness still endures there from events 70 years ago, when Los Angeles grabbed control of water rights to irrigate its rapid growth.

To quench Las Vegas's growing thirst, LVWD submitted the new plan in 1989, the details of which percolated only by mouth until the public hearings were set to sort fact from fiction.

"We feel we're being snowballed," says Richard Carver, a Nye County commissioner and rancher who attended all four meetings - in Las Vegas, Ely, Tonopah, and Panaca. The district officials "say one thing one place, and a different thing in the other. It was like a big PR stunt designed to show us how nice they are - but it was an insult to the general public."

Mr. Carver says ranchers urged the LVWD to concentrate on conservation to "pull the plug on swimming pools, man-made lakes, and the greening of the desert." While he acknowledges that some of the largest aquifers and rivers in the United States run beneath his state, he fears municipal control of the underground resources.

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"We just know the whole thing is like a bathtub," he says. "You put a straw in anywhere and it's going to draw water down everywhere else." The proposal has put in jeopardy the livelihood of cattle and horse ranchers, farmers, as well as the natural habitats of wild animals, Carver says.

Carver and Records have joined an alliance with Stephen Bradhurst, a Reno consultant, and ranchers in Nye, Lincoln, and White Pine Counties in Nevada and Inyo County in California. "The natural inclination of this group is to stop this in court," says lawyer George Benisch. "But we're not ruling out other ways to work through this."

The group has enlisted the sympathies of neighboring states to get the issue adjudicated at a federal level. "We feel we have a better chance outside state courts," says Mr. Bradhurst. Environmental concerns in neighboring California's Death Valley National Monument and Utah's Great Basin National Park are their strongest arguing points, he says.

The Nevada state engineer, Mike Turnipseed, has received over 3,600 protests against the Las Vegas plan from the Sierra Club, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians.

"There are several species of endangered fish that could be heavily impacted with massive water depletion," says Jon Sjoberg, supervising fisheries biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. Fifteen years ago, pumping for an MX missile project in mid-state dried up several Nevada springs.

For its part, the LVWD is trying to play down the image of Las Vegas as a water profligate, sin-city, with fountains, fish tanks, and recreational parks and lakes. Many of the hotels recirculate fountain and recreational water, they say, and most lake/swimming facilities use no more water than a golf course.

Seventy percent of the Nevada's economy is generated in Las Vegas, district officials point out. Development projects like Desert Shores, where 5,000 homes border an artificial lake, create thousands of jobs. LVWD says the water project will also benefit other cities in southern Nevada - Big Bend, Henderson, Laughlin, and Boulder City.

"We are not asking for any water currently used by other states or counties," says Linda Littel, director of public affairs for the water district. She cites a Nevada ground-water law that prevents the use of water that is not replenished annually - a built-in protection to avoid past abuses like that of California's Owens Valley.

State engineer Turnipseed, who must eventually approve or reject the well proposal, says he expects a significant downscaling in the project as hearings continue.

"The farmers are screaming now," he says, "because the state's political momentum rests with Las Vegas."

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