This story spans 29 years, 300 miles, and the growth of a thirsty city in a desert.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), on a mission to find water to accommodate growth in Southern Nevada, believes pumping groundwater from rural Nevada and piping it to Southern Nevada is essential due to Colorado River shortages that could endanger Southern Nevada’s long-term economic survival. While Nevada receives only about 2 percent of the total water allocated from the Colorado River, the Las Vegas metropolitan area depends on the river for over 90 percent of its water. Since 2000, the river basin has been experiencing its longest drought in the last one hundred years, according to the U.S. Department of Interior.
Part of the groundwater sought by the SNWA included water that feeds into the Swamp Cedar Area within Spring Valley of east-central Nevada, a valley of significant cultural importance for the Newe, “the People” of the Western Shoshone and Goshute tribes. The tribes believe any water siphoned from these aquifers would damage their ancestral home.
To the Newe, it is known as Bahsahwahbee (bah-sah-wah-bee)—“sacred water valley” — especially for the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, Ely Shoshone Tribe, and Duckwater Shoshone Tribe.
A 2017 application nominating the valley to the National Register of Historic Places describes the valley as the site of three separate massacres: the Spring Valley Massacre of 1859, the Swamp Cedars Massacre of 1863, and the Swamp Cedars Massacre of 1897, in which hundreds of men, women, and children were killed by soldiers. The Newe hold that for every one of their ancestors killed during the massacres, a swamp cedar tree grew in their place. Newe connections to fallen ancestors, cultural traditions, and cultural history are strongly and evocatively connected to the natural environment, the water and the survival of the trees.
The Cedar Swamp is an area rooted in deep pain and the conflicts that started over the land go far back in time. The valley has little visible vestiges of its bloody past. The cedar trees are tall and green, the streams clear and flowing.
This summer, indigenous organizers made a plan. In October, ten runners would carry a message of opposition across 300-miles along the proposed path of the groundwater pipeline, in the Water Protectors Sacred Run.
In October 1989, the Las Vegas Valley Water District (LVVWD) filed 146 applications with the State Engineer to pump approximately 800,000 acre-feet per year of groundwater from twenty-six rural groundwater basins more than 200 miles north of Las Vegas. In response to those 1989 applications, over 800 individual protests were filed.
You won’t find many of the casinos that were around in 1989 — the Hacienda, Sands, Riviera, Aladdin, Stardust — all have been demolished.
Like weeds near a dripping faucet, more casinos took their place. In 1989 the Mirage opened its doors to the public, marking what many see as the moment that began the transformation of the Las Vegas Strip and the Southern Nevada economy.
In 1991, seven water entities in southern Nevada joined together to form the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) was created and acquired the LVVWD’s rights to the groundwater applications as a successor-in-interest. A year before, the Excalibur opened. Two years later, the new MGM Grand, Treasure Island, and the Luxor all started up within months of one another.
In the Cooperative Agreement between the seven agencies, one of the functions conferred to the SNWA was “to acquire the rights of LVVWD under applications filed with the Nevada State Engineer to appropriate surface water and groundwater in northern Clark, Lincoln, Nye, and White Pine counties… for the use of such water in Clark County.”
The water rights applications were left dormant until 2005, the same year the Wynn resort opened, when SNWA requested that the State Engineer schedule a hearing on the applications. Before the initial hearing commenced, petitions were filed with the State Engineer to re-open the process to allow successors-in-interest, including heirs to original protesters, to step into the shoes of their predecessors-in-interest who were original protesters, just as SNWA had been permitted to step into the shoes of its predecessor-in-interest, LVVWD.
The State Engineer denied the request. While his denial was being challenged in court, the original Spring Valley hearing was held and the State Engineer issued a ruling permitting SNWA to export up to 60,000 acre feet per year from Spring Valley, with a requirement that 40,000 acre feet initially be pumped and exported for 10 years to monitor impacts at that level of development before the full amount would be approved.
The Water Protectors Sacred Run would start from Lehman Caves in White Pine County and end in the Valley of Fire near Las Vegas. All runners congregated at the caves Oct. 1 for a night of camping and prayer in the Swamp Cedar Area before the start of the run.
Lehman caves holds cultural significance as well. The natural entrance of the cave was once a burial site for the Eastern Shoshone people. It now hosts daily tours and the occasional wedding. It was once also the location for a 1965 film titled “The Wizard of Mars.”
“I’ve never seen anything so beautiful,” the lead heroine says in the film.
The cave was formed by groundwater trickling down through the bedrock over millions of years, dissolving the limestone, creating cavities aided by carbon dioxide and decaying vegetation in the soil.
“I cannot escape the feeling of being watched by some unseen intelligence and that perhaps our final destination will not be of our own choosing,” the astronaut protagonist in “The Wizard of Mars” says before entering in the cave.
The Moapa River Paiute Reservation and the Walker River Paiute Indian Reservation were each established by executive order in 1973. One of the main goals of reservations was to confine native peoples who traveled through the land seasonally to one central location. Along with the loss of their land, the fundamental structure for tribal life was destroyed.
The Reno/Sparks Indian Colony started as a small camp next to the Truckee River built by Native Americans who didn’t want to live in the confines of reservations. Tobey Stump, one of the indigenous runners, grew up on the reservation. Stump was nine-years-old when the Las Vegas Valley Water District put the construction of the water pipeline into motion. It is a fight he— and his son— have inherited.
Groundwater, he says, provides water for the elk he hunts with his son and the pine nuts the fauna eat to survive. Indigenous people can not hunt and gather freely as they once did.
“The spirits are there and they acknowledge the people in various ways,” Stump says of the Swamp Cedar Area. “We acknowledge the ancestors in a special way and when we pray in these areas that long ago were utilized by our ancestors we are helping them replenish and protect the land. When we pray we are praying for the creator and doing good for something greater than ourselves.”
Stump says he’s watched the cities of Las Vegas and Reno grow. In a way, he understands why people in the cites do not see the harm in the pipeline or think about the impact of removing the groundwater. In the city water comes and goes, the spigot brings water without effort or thought.
“How are they going to explain to the youth that they created a big old dust bowl because you wanted water for a couple more hotels or swimming pools or lawns in the middle of the desert,” Stump says. “We are only borrowing all of this because the generation behind us will need it too.”
Many uncertainties surround the hydrology of the groundwater system that connects the groundwater basins where SNWA has water applications. How much water is available in the aquifer system is not known with any high degree of confidence. The extent of groundwater flow through and between the basins is also unclear, and it has not been determined how a large-scale pumping project will affect those basins or the ancient trees that depend on their water.
In the spring of 2007, a district court denied challenge from opponents and upheld the State Engineer’s approval of some original Spring Valley water rights applications. The ruling was appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court.
With that appeal pending, the State Engineer moved forward with the next hearing, which dealt with the Cave Valley, Dry Lake Valley, and Delmar Valley (CDD) applications. In the summer of 2008, the State Engineer granted SNWA a total of 18,755 acre feet per year of groundwater rights from those three valleys — 4,678 in Cave Valley, 11,584 in Dry Lake Valley, and 2,493 in Delamar Valley. With their appeal of the earlier ruling still pending, pipeline opponents went to court to nix the newly approved applications.
In 2009, the Las Vegas City Center opened, a 16,797,000-square-foot mixed-use, urban complex on 76 acres of the Las Vegas Strip. The center included multiple new casinos, one of them being the Aria Resort and Casino, where the entrance bears a 270-foot-long 24-foot-high water wall, and where Crystals Shopping Center is tastefully decorated with 15 frozen columns of ice that change shape daily.
On Oct. 19, 2009, the court reversed the ruling that granted the SNWA water rights in CDD. The court ruled the State Engineer’s actions were “arbitrary” and “capricious,” that the State Engineer had abused his discretion, and that the State Engineer’s finding on issues of availability of water, the public interest, conflicts with existing rights, and monitoring and mitigation of those conflicts were not supported by substantial evidence in the record. The State Engineer and SNWA appealed the District Court’s CDD Order to the Supreme Court.
The runners leapfrog running duties every two to four miles, tying red ribbons along highway markers and marking the ground as a signal to stop, tracking miles on the car odometer. On the second day, while camping in Cathedral State Park, the beginnings of a flash flood washed through the camp grounds in the middle of the night. Many who fell asleep under the stars, some in hammocks, quickly awoke to pitch their tents in the dead of the night.
Beverly Harry, a Navajo community organizer for PLAN and PLAN Action, has been carefully planning the run since June. In the first meeting, Harry said she envisioned a proud native runner holding their flag while running across the desert, a vision undaunted by the heavy rain.
Harry says her first thought in all her work is always to protect the water. As one of the last sheep herders on her reservation, Harry recalls struggling to siphon enough water for the animals. As an adult she worked as a fishery biologist monitoring water quality for one of the tribes in Arizona. In January, she quit and joined PLAN in its indigenous conservation efforts. She has always been pulled in by the forces of water.
“It’s ancient water — it’s not water we are suppose to be relying on,” Harry said of the basins. “We are not supposed to be using the groundwater for all the reasons people are using it. They’re using it for development. They’re using it for mining. They’re using it for agriculture.”
“’Resources’ is what people call them. To native people they’re gifts. We don’t see them as commodities. We see them as gifts,” Harry says.
“We have to start protecting this water,” Harry says. “We have to stop this insane thinking that water is always going to be available. We have to stop lying to the public.”
In January, 2010, the Supreme Court effectively overturned approval of SNWA’s Spring Valley and CDD applications. The court also required the State Engineer to re-publish notice of and re-open the protest period for SNWA’s 1989 pipeline applications in Snake Valley before proceeding to a hearing on those applications in the future.
Subsequently, water right hearings over SNWA’s 1989 groundwater applications for the Spring Valley and CDD basins were held over a six-week period.
The Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservations, the Ely Shoshone Tribe, and the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe joined the fight along with the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints, and the entire State of Utah.
In 2012, the Nevada State Engineer released his rulings on SNWA’s water right applications and granted SNWA the majority of the water it filed for back in the 1980s. However, the protestors appealed the decision to Nevada’s 7th Judicial District Court. In December 2013, a senior judge reversed SNWA’s approved water rights back to the State Engineer for further study. The judge agreed with the protestors that SNWA’s vague mitigation plans are unacceptable without “objective standards to determine when mitigation will be required and implemented” and ruled that the SNWA’s plan was “unfair to following generations of Nevadans, and is not in the public interest.”
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released their Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study in December 2012, which projects the Colorado River may not be able to meet all of the demands on it by 2060.
Halfway through the next day of running, rain poured on the runners for miles and miles. Camp was set up in muddy soil. Still, they’ve finished a little early each day, enthusiastic and energized. Many of the runners know each other from previous runs, others are meeting for the first time.
The group of runners grew after the first days. People joined the runners along the way, including an older couple from Reno and a woman from New Zealand with her young son.
“They believe in what we’re doing,” said Stump.
Billy Mills won a gold medal in the 10,000 meter run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the only person from the Americas to win Olympic gold in this event. Lewis Tewanima was a two-time Olympic distance runner and silver medalist in the 10,000 meter run in the 1912 Summer Olympics. Patti Catalano Dillon was inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in 2006. All were indigenous runners, and like Pheidippides, are canonized in marathon legend.
Running has cultural resonance to the indigenous runners. Long-distance runners were traditionally used by tribes as a method of carrying messages and news across large territories. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which expelled the Spanish from the Santa Fe area in present day New Mexico and staved off the Spanish for another 12 years — the only outright expulsion of European settlers in North American history — was organized by dispatching runners.
“Native people had to do it for just that much longer,” says Dustin Martin, one of the runners, and of Navajo decent. “Running and that knowledge of what it’s like to be on our feet and rely on our ability to move across the landscape is closer to our cultures than any other cultures on the planet. That is our strength. We have different ways of fighting. We have different ways of showing that we’re strong.”
Martin was born in Chinle, Arizona, in an Indian hospital, and for the majority of his childhood lived adjacent to a 600-acre tribal allotment for a Navajo Code Talker. After the Standing Rock Sioux protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Martin embraced running as an extension of protest. His first run was “Perseverance for Preservation” a relay run where a young man decided he was going to run from Flagstaff to Standing Rock to raise awareness and create community among native people along the way.
Running is the best way to have a communion with the land, says Martin. Running gave him a medium to understand and appreciate his native identity in a society that is very quickly encouraging the world to forego protecting the land on which they stand.
“I’m here to run through each of these basins that they are proposing to take this water from, and when someone in the future starts asking questions about it, be able to attest to the fact that there are people who saw it with their own two eyes and can say it didn’t used to be this way — that something very wrong has happened here.”
“Our impact of the consumption of the land is written on the land itself,” Martin says. “We can no longer rest on the laurels of our youth’s success in competition or in education, because our environment is being so egregiously attacked.”
In January 2014 the Southern Nevada Water Authority and State Engineer appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court.
In the fall of 2015, The Nevada Supreme Court ruled that any mitigation plan the SNWA submitted for review “must be based upon evidence in the record to support that mitigation would be successful and adequate to fully protect those existing rights.”
The SNWA submitted a hydraulic evidence report in response to the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse application approvals, but the State Engineer ruled that the SNWA mitigation plan failed to meet the standards set by the court and prove how it would protect existing rights or minimize environmental impact.
In Eureka County v. State Engineer, the Nevada Supreme Court held that after having failed to present sufficient evidence of a valid mitigation plan in its first hearing before the State Engineer, the applicant was not entitled to present additional mitigation evidence, because it wasn’t entitled to “a second bite at the apple.”
No other living thing can move the way humans do. They are built for distance. Archaeologists believe prehistoric humans could hunt something as massive as a mammoth by running after it for days, wearing it down until it was too exhausted to continue any longer. Persistence is a storied human virtue.
Everything the runners are carrying is still wet from the rain the day prior. Pants. Shoes. Tents.
Runners carry bundles of white and sweet sage tied in red twine that Shoshone elder Johnny Bob picked in the mountains when they were tall and green. They represent the life the earth grows.
“We don’t want to pick them when they’re dried out. It’ll fall apart and we don’t want Mother Earth to fall apart,” said Bob.
The lack of water in the Mojave desert near the Moapa reservation does nothing to zap color from the land.
Distant mountains are dappled in pink and deep violet as if wrapped in cellophane. The dipping sun lights the desert in an orange haze. Long shadows trail behind the runners.
In the final leg of their journey, all the runners walk together to Overton Beach, a subsection of Lake Mead. Stump is holding a drum made of milky white deer hide with a piece of antler serving as a handle at the bottom. There’s a red ribbon the runners used to mark their running path tied on the antler. He beats the drum in a slow steady rhythm while he sings a Paiute prayer song. The song is old and tells a complex story and history. It’s used as a prayer and a blessing.
“We pound on the drum to bring in spirits and life. To all the living things,” said Bob.
People dance. They move by stepping side to side, ankle bone to ankle bone, moving in a circle as their car keys jiggle along to the song of the drum.
The runners stand at the edge of the lake, some singing, some burning the sage, the smoke wafting over them. The smoke is used to purify and bless.
Twenty years ago the water was 150 feet higher. The runners are reaching stretches of land their ancestors never did.
Last month, the Southern Nevada Water Authority board voted unanimously to forge ahead on plans to pump groundwater from rural Nevada and pipe it to Las Vegas by voting to appeal the ruling that denied the SNWA’s water rights.
“We need to defend it because we are financially deep into this project as it is,” said Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin during the meeting, who also serves on the board and has been involved with the project since the beginning. “The water belongs to the citizens of Clark County as much as anybody.”