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Piping water from rural counties to fuel growth in Las Vegas, Nevada: Water transfer risks in the arid USA West

Lisa W. Welsh
Utah State University, Department of Environment and Society, Logan, Utah, USA lisa.welsh@usu.edu

Joanna Endter-Wada
Utah State University, Department of Environment and Society, Logan, Utah, USA joanna.endter-wada@usu.edu

ABSTRACT: The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) plans to build a 300-mile pipeline to transfer groundwater from five rural basins in north-eastern Nevada south to the greater Las Vegas metropolitan area. Relying on the path dependence literature, we trace the policy choices and legal battles that have led to southern Nevada’s proposed Groundwater Development Project. We find that policy decisions over time, often initiated by powerful water policy entrepreneurs, have fuelled southern Nevada’s rapid growth and development. After emphasising water demand management for more than two decades, SNWA has revived its controversial plans to increase water supplies by importing water from rural areas. Using semi-structured key-informant interviews and document analysis of water right hearing transcripts, public comments, and hearing rulings, we examine the risks and uncertainties involved in SNWA’s Groundwater Development Project. SNWA and the protestors of the project experience different aspects of risk and uncertainty. SNWA believes the Groundwater Development Project is an essential addition to its current water strategy to reduce the political and economic risks from Colorado River shortages that could endanger southern Nevada’s longer-term economic survival. Protestors believe the uncertainty of SNWA’s mitigation and management plans are inadequate to protect rural basins from the long-term ecological and hydrological risks and uncertainties associated with SNWA’s pumping and export of groundwater from their areas. Our analysis reveals a much deeper and longer path dependence trajectory in the USA West of overpopulating an arid region, subsidising decades of infrastructure development to promote economic development, and creating dependencies on increasingly scarce water supplies. A paradigm shift much larger than water demand management is required to reverse this trajectory and deal with the dilemmas of unabated growth in desert metropolitan areas dependent on distant water sources.

KEYWORDS: Path dependence, water infrastructure, policy entrepreneurs, risk assessment, Las Vegas, USA