Policy Debates over the Southern Nevada Water Authority Groundwater Development Project: Beneficial Uses of Water in a Desert
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Policy Debates over the Southern Nevada Water Authority Groundwater Development Project:
Beneficial Uses of Water in a Desert

Introduction

The western United States continues to be the fastest-growing and fastest-urbanizing region of the country, while also being the most arid (Mackun and Wilson, 2011). As population and cities continue to grow in water-scarce environments, people are forced to confront value tradeoffs in trying to balance efficiency, equity, and effectiveness of water allocation practices (Ingram, Scaff, and Silko, 1986; National Research Council, 1992; Howe and Ingram, 2002; Ingram, Whiteley, and Perry, 2008). In the U.S. West, these water allocation challenges are made even more difficult as people try to increase the flexibility of an established water system deeply entrenched in American political and institutional history (Ingram, 1990; Wilkinson, 1992; Reisner, 1993; Ingram and Brown, 1998; Lach, Rayner, and Ingram 2005; Lach, Ingram, and Rayner, 2006).

In this article, we examine the water conflict between the Las Vegas metropolitan area and rural communities in east-central Nevada (figure 1). The main source of Las Vegas's current water supply is the Colorado River, which flows south from Lake Powell at the Arizona-Utah border through the Grand Canyon and into Lake Mead. Nearly 40 million people in seven states, including major U.S. cities and agricultural systems, depend on Colorado River water. Over-allocation of the Colorado River, multiple competing needs, prolonged drought, rapid regional population [End Page 302]

Figure 1. Map of eastern Nevada showing the five groundwater basins (Snake Valley, Spring Valley, CaveValley, DryLake Valley, and Delamar Valley) targeted in SNWA's water right application for its proposed Groundwater Development Project. The Lincoln County, Conservation, Recreation, and Development Act (LCCRDA) establishes corridors in Lincoln County for water conveyance structures and shows the general location of the proposedgroundwaterpipeline.Credit: Adrian Welsh.
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Figure 1.

Map of eastern Nevada showing the five groundwater basins (Snake Valley, Spring Valley, CaveValley, DryLake Valley, and Delamar Valley) targeted in SNWA's water right application for its proposed Groundwater Development Project. The Lincoln County, Conservation, Recreation, and Development Act (LCCRDA) establishes corridors in Lincoln County for water conveyance structures and shows the general location of the proposedgroundwaterpipeline.Credit: Adrian Welsh.

[End Page 303] growth, and climate change have stressed this watershed, and current water policies may not contain the tools to equitably resolve emerging water conflicts (Adler, 2007; Hundley, 2009). Water managers have been investigating other solutions to survive in this new reality (U.S. Department of the Interior, 2012).

In 1989, the Las Vegas Valley Water District, now part of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), applied for water right permits to transport groundwater from rural east-central Nevada 300 miles south to Las Vegas and the surrounding metropolitan area via its proposed Groundwater Development Project (figure 1). The project would "likely be the largest interbasin transfer of water in U.S. history" (White Pine County et al. v. King, 2013). We use this case study to examine the water policy controversies involved in a rapidly growing desert metropolis seeking water from distant rural sources. Our analysis relies heavily on contributions from Helen Ingram's work on the importance of context, the significance of social constructions in policy design, the role of equity in water management, and the need to recognize multiple ways of knowing and valuing water. We follow her social construction and policy design framework (Schneider and Ingram, 1997) to explain how policy debates over the SNWA pipeline project have been framed. This case study focuses on foundational principles of water allocation that need to be reexamined as people attempt to better balance multiple needs in water-scarce environments.

Framework for Understanding the Debates

Ingram and Schneider (1990) argue that the content of policy has not received adequate attention within the policy sciences. While policy processes that lead to policy designs may be chaotic and changes in policy abrupt (Sabatier, 2007), the actual content of various policies is purposefully crafted to "serve particular values, purposes, and interests" (Schneider and Ingram, 1997, 3). Understanding the context in which policy designs emerge is also very important, because policies are created in response to particular situations (Schneider and Ingram, 1997; Honadle, 1999). Although contexts may change and evolve, policy designs generally endure, because the underlying foundations of policy designs are known for continuity, not for fundamental shifts (Pierson, 2004; Ingram and Fraser, 2006; Schlager and Blomquist, 2008). Policy designs socially construct target populations in positive and...