Just north of the tiny Nevada town of Baker, near the Utah state line, is a dusty Freemont Indian archeological site sometimes known as Baker Village. Excavations in the early 1990s revealed that the residents, besides collecting wild plant food, grew corn, beans and squash.
But crops like these don't grow in a desert climate. Archeologists surmise that the Indians used water channeled from nearby streams fed by runoff from the stunning mountains to the West in the area we know today as Great Basin National Park.
Visit the site today and you'll be hard-pressed to find evidence of nearby streams. Meanwhile, at nearby Lehman Caves, near the Great Basin visitors' center, park rangers report that the underground water that formed the caves' stunning limestone formations shows signs of drying up.
The culprit? One suspect is the wells drilled to irrigate neighboring farmland.
This fragile area is known as the Snake Valley, ground zero in the fight between Utah and Nevada over plans to divert water from an underground aquifer through a 285-mile pipeline to Las Vegas. Because the aquifer extends into Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert is being asked to sign off on an agreement to divide the Snake Valley's water between the two states.
Critics of the agreement, including the Utah Farm Bureau and the Goshute Tribe, say that aquifer is the lifeblood of this desert area. The agreement, they say, grossly overestimates the amount of available water in the aquifer.
Sound familiar? Many water experts have been saying much the same thing about the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which carved up the river's flow among seven downstream states, including Utah and Nevada, and led to the construction of Lake Mead and Lake Powell. They point to the dwindling levels in both lakes as evidence that estimates of the available water were much too optimistic.
According to some reports, Gov. Herbert is leaning toward signing the Snake Valley agreement, believing that Nevada will go ahead regardless. According to this line of thinking, an agreement between the states will give Utah more say in the project and allow future disputes to be settled as they arise.
Let's put this in context: We live in a state that appears ready to spend millions in court to battle the federal government for control of federal lands, but appears to be shying away from a court battle with a neighboring state over a project that could do irreparable harm to an area the size of Vermont. If this means taking Nevada to court, so be it.
The history of water projects in the West is full of stories of unintended consequences, from the blowing dust in California's Owens Valley to increasing salinity in irrigated farmlands to the exposed shorelines at Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
Perhaps it is time for a sea change in our thinking. In the arid West, how many more golf courses and thirsty subdivisions can we afford to build if it means wrecking ecosystems that may never recover?
Gov. Herbert has said he plans to decide by April 1 whether to sign the agreement. You can let him know your opinion by calling (801) 538-1000.