Project of the Southern Nevada Water Authority Is Bad News for Species Already At-Risk

From the June 2013 issue of Desert Report.

Water and Growth

Life is impossible without water.

Mother Earth’s life-blood nourishes all that require it. Up until recently, it seemed that there was plenty of water to go around – after all, about 70% of the surface of the Earth is covered with some form of it. But it is now abundantly clear that with overpopulation, misplaced development, and impacts from human alterations to climate, useable water is indeed becoming scarce.

One only has to look as far as the desert Southwest and the Colorado River Basin to gauge the seriousness of the situation. The already over-appropriated Colorado River has been named the “most endangered river in America”, and a recent government report predicts further declines in flow ranging from 10 to 30%.

This threatens wildlife habitat, cities, and agriculture that depend upon it.

One such city is Las Vegas, which has experienced exponential growth during the past two decades. For anyone familiar with basic biological principles (or who has good old common sense), it is clear that such growth is unsustainable in the driest desert in North America. Unfortunately greed, speculation, and focus on short term profits have trumped these principles.

Now the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) is pursuing plans to mine even more ground water – 27.4 BILLION gallons annually – left from the last ice age. It would be piped almost 300 miles to the Las Vegas Valley to allow for more unsustainable growth and as a hedge against future reduced flows in the Colorado River.

Ethics aside, the pragmatic impacts of this proposal to both the human and natural worlds would be catastrophic at best. The remainder of this article will focus on the wildlife that will be decimated.

Aquatic Species

Let’s start with the smallest and most vulnerable – the spring snails. These creatures are remnants of the Pleistocene Era, when what are now valleys of the Great Basin were lakes and inter-connected wetlands. As climate and the landscape became drier, these connections were broken, and many species likely went extinct. Those that didn’t were stranded, often at just one or two springs in their former range. There are at least 25 species of spring snail threatened by the ground water project.

One unfortunate species is the flag pyrg, found only at 4 springs. All of these springs are affected by the project, with reductions in flow conservatively estimated (by the SNWA) to be 17%. Given that habitat for spring snails is tightly tied to the water quality, chemistry, temperature, and flow rate of the springs and their brooks, there is a high likelihood that the flag pyrg will be one of several species of spring snail that will go extinct due to the pumping impacts.

Screen shot 2013-08-11 at 3.11.05 PM
Northern leopard frog. Shaula Hedwell, USFWS

Overall, the final environmental impact statement (FEIS) estimates that between 41 and 203 springs are at a moderate to high risk of negative impacts. Accordingly, the Center for Biological Diversity has filed a lawsuit asking for protections on an accelerated timeframe for the flag pyrg and three other spring snails under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). They have also petitioned for 31 other species of spring snails in the Great Basin in Nevada to be listed as endangered, with a decision expected by 2017.

Similar to the case of the spring snails, desert fish are another remnant from wetter times that now find themselves in fragmented and severely limited habitat. At least fifteen species of desert fish are at risk from the impacts of the proposed pumping. The FEIS projects that between 46 and 140 miles of permanent streams will have a moderate to high degree of degradation.

Perhaps the most critically threatened is the White River spinedace, currently listed under the ESA as Endangered.

The last five-year status review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) states that in 2008, just over 1000 individuals were counted in the Flag Spring – Sunnyside Creek system, their only remaining habitat.

This fish was once a member of an inter-connected suite of similar species inhabiting the Pleistocene White River, which exists today only as a series of isolated springs and short streams. The FWS gives the spinedace a “2C” endangerment rating, among the highest of any species in Nevada, and they specifically site development of ground and surface water in the habitat area as a significant threat. As with the flag pyrg, the impacts on spring flow, temperature, and chemistry from the SNWA project could easily send this imperiled species into extinction.

Also affected are the amphibians, with a notable example being the northern leopard frog. Protection for this species was sought under the ESA in 2006, but was found to be not (yet) warranted due to its wide range and uncertainty as to whether the western population is distinct from the more common eastern population.

Nonetheless, it remains an FWS “species of concern” in western states. The leopard frog is found at many springs and wetlands to be impacted by the water grab. At Keegan Spring, for example, the expected decline in flows is estimated to range from 58-100%; at North Millick Spring the impact is 31-75%. In addition to these spring and stream impacts, the FEIS estimates that over 5500 total acres of wetlands will be lost.

Upland Species Unaccounted for in the FEIS (except in the broadest of terms) are the hundreds of species of upland animal and plant species that will be displaced, extirpated, and in some cases driven to extinction. The FEIS estimates that 131,000 acres of Great Basin shrublands, along with their associated species, will be lost. Left unsaid is that these biologically diverse shrublands will be replaced by invasive species and only a few native grasses and forbs. As the vegetative protection for the soil surface is lost and the ground increasingly exposed to wind erosion, the FEIS estimates that over 11,600 TONS of new dust will be generated annually and sent downwind to rural communities and Salt Lake City.

Southwest willow flycatcher. Suzanne Langridge , USGS
Southwest willow flycatcher. Suzanne Langridge , USGS

Two rare and greatly affected species worth mentioning are the greater sage grouse and the southwestern willow flycatcher.

The sage grouse is currently being considered for protection under the ESA, with a decision expected by 2015. This relatively large bird is a “sagebrush obligate species” – one of many in the affected area. The grouse relies on sagebrush for cover from predators and shelter from the weather. It is also both a direct source of food and a nursery for the many insect species that the bird consumes. Sage grouse also need wetlands, particularly as habitat for raising their young. The FEIS states that over 164,000 acres of sage grouse priority habitat – that living space needed for courting, nesting and brood rearing – would be adversely affected, along with an additional 100,000 acres of general habitat. Extirpation of the grouse from an area the size of Vermont surely will not bode well for its long term survival, or for the effort to prove it can be protected without the constraints of the ESA.

The Southwest willow flycatcher has been listed as Endangered since 1995. It breeds in relatively dense riparian tree and shrub communities associated with rivers, swamps, and other wetlands. It needs vegetation 10 to 13 feet above ground, and habitat patches at least 0.25 acres in size and at least 30 feet wide. In the area of the water grab, the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge is critical habitat. The bird is also found at other locations in the prehistoric White River Flow System, including the Pahranagat and Muddy Rivers and the Meadow Valley Wash.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention the iconic big game animals of the Great Basin, such as the pronghorn, mule deer, elk, and desert bighorn sheep. One or more of these animal species inhabit every part of the area impacted by the water grab. With the expected dramatic changes in the landscape, vegetation, and water availability, it is expected that all will suffer major declines in population or outright extirpation from large areas. These well-known animals are the face of Nevada’s wildlife and wildland heritage, so while they are not at risk of extinction, they are perhaps the best species to carry to the general public the story of the destruction that will occur if the project goes forward.

Summary The proposed SNWA water grab is the greatest environmental threat to Nevada and the eastern part of Utah. If it is implemented, scores of species will go extinct, many others will be eliminated from their traditional homes, and the natural heritage of the region will be irreparably damaged. The only gain will be the allowance of further unsustainable growth of the human population in Southern Nevada. This ancient, irreplaceable ground water is not a long term solution – it will go dry. Any long term solution must include limits to growth, increased outdoor and indoor conservation, a re-look at the terms of the “Law of the River” (the collection of documents that apportions Colorado River water), and the investigation of new technologies, such as water reclamation and desalinization.

Rob Mrowka is an ecologist employed by the Center for Biological Diversity, and serves as the Center’s Nevada Conservation Advocate. Mrowka was previously employed with the U.S. Forest Service, and later served as the Environmental Planning Manager for Nevada’s Clark County. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Great Basin Water Network.