Indians vs. Vegas water war brewing

Two axioms have long held true in the West: Water flows uphill to money and the U.S. government doesn’t keep its word when it comes to agreements with Indian tribes.

Both of those statements appear to be playing out in the latest plan to provide more water for the sprawling metropolis of Las Vegas, Nev.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Friday approved a final environmental impact statement on a proposal that would allow the Southern Nevada Water Authority to build a 300-mile pipeline to carry water up and over the mountains from near the Utah-Nevada border. Separately, the Nevada state engineer in March approved a plan for the water authority, which supplies water to Las Vegas, to pump up to 84,000 acre feet of groundwater a year from four rural valleys in eastern Nevada.

The problem is, according to the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, the drilling will deplete the aquifer beneath the the Goshute Reservation and, as the tribal chairman put it, allow Las Vegas to “steal” the Indians’ water.

The Goshutes aren’t alone. Ranchers and local governments in eastern Nevada, as well as environmental groups, have challenged the state engineer’s decision in court.

But the Goshute Indians say the federal approval of the pipeline is especially distressing because it means the BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have abdicated their responsibility to protect and preserve all tribal assets, including natural resources such as water.

“What is most unconsiconable here is that the BIA agreed that this was in the best interests of the Indian tribes in the area without ever talking to us,” said Madeline Greymountain, vice chairwoman of the confederated tribes.

Such high-handed decision-making on behalf of the Indian constituents it is supposed to represent sounds more like the corrupt BIA of the late 19th century than the supposedly enlightened agency that exists in the 21st century. But it is, after all, the same agency that lost billions of dollars of tribal funds over many decades. Only a lawsuit by multiple Indian tribes finally allowed Indians to receive some of that money last year.

Las Vegas is, of course, an economic powerhouse in Nevada and the Southwest in general. It already takes millions of gallons of water each year from the Colorado River and periodically comes up with schemes to acquire more. But existing law and river compacts make that difficult.

The fact that Vegas visionaries are looking elsewhere for water to meet future growth for the desert city is understandable.

But the Goshutes have claims to the water on their reservation that long predate the development of Sin City. And federal courts have — in recent decades, at least — been inclined to support such Indian rights. If this latest water plan is to move forward, Las Vegas and federal authorities must do more to ensure that the Indians’ water is protected.

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