The Swamp Cedars and the Nevada Water Grab

By Will Falk / Deep Green Resistance

The Swamp Cedars in Spring Valley, Nevada have grown long memories. They stand on the valley floor under the bright Great Basin stars where the skies are still unspoiled by the encroaching glow of electricity. Beneath the trees’ branches, the blue petals of wild irises flutter in the breeze. All of them – the trees, the flowers, the stars – sway to the soft melodies played by the valley’s bubbling springs.

Most of the Swamp Cedars’ memories are pleasant. Carried by glaciers to the valley floor sometime in the last two and a half million years, the Swamp Cedars remember when wooly mammoths plodded through the Great Basin. The wind through their leaves whispers of a time when the Swamp Cedars trembled under the shadow of great teraton birds who rode the skies with their 25-foot wingspans. When wild horses stop at the springs to share a drink with the Swamp Cedars, the trees tell stories of the fleet native horses and camels that once ran the open spaces of North America.

Dawn in Spring Valley still carries the hint of curiosity the Swamp Cedars felt on that morning so many thousands of years ago when they watched the first humans walk from the foothills to rest in the welcome shade the trees offered. They learned to expect the humans regularly as they gathered under the trees for sacred ceremonies. They listened as the humans called themselves “Newe” and the trees learned that the word meant, “people.”

The Newe returned often to the Swamp Cedars for their ceremonies and the trees took delight with the Newe as old friends embraced after several seasons apart, as young people became lovers, and as information was shared about the year’s pinyon pine nut harvest.

A few of the memories are extremely painful. The Swamp Cedars recall when a different kind of human first arrived in Spring Valley. These humans were pale of skin and rode what the trees recognized as horses though they were a different species of horse than the native horses that had long since been lost. At first, there were just a few of the pale humans, but the trickle turned into a flood. The Swamp Cedars wince as they relive their first experience of steel – the excruciating pain that came when the first ax drove deep into living Swamp Cedar wood.

Worst of all, the Swamp Cedars witnessed the Newe screaming as the blue-clad humans on horses rode them down, the puffs of white smoke that turned into a haze, and the sharp cracks of rifle fire. The Swamp Cedars still recoil from the taste of blood in the soil when the bubbling springs turned red.

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Dr. Ronald Lanner, one of the foremost experts on Great Basin trees explains the Swamp Cedars’ uniqueness: “…within the borders of Nevada, Rocky Mountain juniper is found in 39 mountain ranges but in only one valley – Spring Valley.” The Swamp Cedars carry an aura of magic. In fact, they are not cedars at all. They are actually Rocky Mountain junipers (juniperus scopulorum) and Rocky Mountain junipers always grow on dry, rocky mountain slopes or in somewhat shaded canyons. Always – except for the Swamp Cedars. Mysteriously, the Swamp Cedars grow in valley bottom woodlands that are flooded part of the year.

The Swamp Cedars of Spring Valley are likely on their way to evolving into a distinct species. Lanner describes, “…it is very likely the swamp cedars comprise a distinct ecotype of Rocky Mountain juniper. An ecotype is a genetically differentiated population that has evolved in adaptation to a distinctively different environment than characterizes that of the main population of its species.”

The Swamp Cedars are sacred to the Shoshone (Newe in their own language) peoples. According to Shoshone elder Delaine Spilsbury, Nevada’s Native peoples were hunter-gatherers who roamed the region in small familial groups while they searched for food. The Swamp Cedars were centrally located in the Shoshone’s traditional territories and offered ample shade during the hot Great Basin summers.  Beneath the trees are a series of springs. Water from the springs encouraged plants and animals to proliferate. The Shoshone found many game birds and animals, medicinal plants, and fish in the nearby streams and ponds. Not far away from the Swamp Cedars, pinyon pine forests grew bounties of pine nuts. With these conditions, the Swamp Cedars became the favorite gathering place for the Shoshone and a sacred ceremonial site.

The Swamp Cedars are a massacre site. Three times over. Spilsbury explains that two of the massacres are of official military record while the last massacre happened at the hands of vigilantes with no military record.

The first two massacres happened in the 1860s. In the first massacre, most of the Shoshone escaped when American cavalry horses became mired in the mud created by the valley’s springs. The second massacre was much worse and Spilsbury says the written reports “state that men’s penises were cut off and shoved into their mouths and tree branches were shoved into women’s vaginas.”

The third massacre happened in 1897. This massacre is only remembered because two little girls hid in a ditch and were not discovered by the white vigilantes who murdered everyone else. The two little girls walked south to the Swallow Ranch. One of the two survivors was named Mamie by the Swallow family. Later, she married one of the Swallows’ hired hands – a Paiute man from Shivits, Utah named Joe Joseph. Spilsbury is the granddaughter of Mamie and Joe Joseph and, therefore, a direct descendant of a survivor of the last Swamp Cedar massacre.

The massacres cursed the Swamp Cedars with a bloody historical significance, but the massacres also endowed the trees with a deep, spiritual significance. According to Spilsbury, “Newe believe that because of their violent deaths, the spirits of the victims remain in the Sacred Trees.”

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The Swamp Cedars are under attack. Close to 300 miles south of Spring Valley, the City of Las Vegas sprang up in the desert. Las Vegas’ population continues to grow in an arid landscape and the city is running out of water. Instead of restricting development, Sin City encourages residents and businesses to move to the city promising them access to the water they’ll need.

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In 1991, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) was created through a cooperative agreement among seven water and wastewater agencies in Southern Nevada including Big Bend Water District, City of Boulder City, City of Henderson, City of Las Vegas, City of North Las Vegas, Clark County Water Reclamation District, and the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

From the SNWA website: “SNWA officials are charged with managing the region’s water resources and providing for Las Vegas Valley residents’ and businesses’ present and future water needs.”  To do this, SNWA has proposed a “Groundwater Development Project.”

The bulk of this plan hinges on a large pipeline from Las Vegas to rural eastern Nevada. The main pipeline is estimated to include 263 miles of buried water pipelines while an estimated 96 to 254 miles of collector pipelines will feed water to the main pipeline. The entire pipeline will pump 27 billion gallons of water from the desert annually. Between 71 and 88 wells will have to be dug in fragile ecosystems while somewhere between 96 and 254 miles of overhead distribution power lines will be built in a region famous for wildfires. The water will be taken primarily from 4 desert valleys – Spring, Cave, Dry Lake, and Delamar Valleys.

In other words, SNWA’s Groundwater Development Plan would destroy much of the Great Basin, would destroy Spring Valley and would destroy the Swamp Cedars.

According to Dr. David Charlet, in his study “Effects of Interbasin Water Transport on Ecosystems of Spring Valley, White Pine County, Nevada,” “Ecosystems of Spring Valley, like most valleys in Nevada, are stressed. Overgrazing, particularly during the late 1800s, water diversion, and groundwater pumping have weakened the plant communities.”

This means human activities are already undermining life in the area.

Charlet makes horrifying predictions for the Swamp Cedars, writing, “The groundwater development proposed by the SNWA for the Spring Valley will doom the populations of swamp cedars. It is unlikely that they will live long past the first 20 yr [sic] of drawdown…” In fact, Charlet believes the Swamp Cedars will act as the canaries in the coal mine as he describes what he thinks will happen, “The swamp cedars will be the first plant species in the valley to become locally extinct, and I imagine that they would not be able to hang on for more than 50 yr. The next species to follow the swamp cedars will be the greasewood, followed shortly by big Great Basin sagebrush, and finally by rabbitbrush.”

Dr. Lanner agrees with Dr. Charlet in Lanner’s study “The Effect of Groundwater Pumping Proposed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority on the ‘Swamp Cedar’ of Spring Valley, Nevada.” He writes, “Despite the fact that the swamp cedars are not currently considered at risk of extinction by state or federal authorities, they are vulnerable to groundwater pumping leading to lowering of the water table and loss of surface flooding. The granting of pumping permits would make it logical, however, for such listing to be initiated.”

Even more terrifying than Charlet’s 20-year prediction, Lanner gives the Swamp Cedars 2 years. He explains, “Since the swamp cedars’ root systems are concentrated in the upper one foot of soil, and almost entirely in the upper two feet, drawdown of water from this part of the soil profile can be expected to be devastating to the trees. I would expect trees to die within no more than two years following the pumping of water from their root zone, even if there is ample rainfall to keep surface roots alive.”

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What will the world lose if SNWA has its way?

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Wild irises and Swamp Cedars, Spring Valley

There are the obvious answers. The world will lose the Swamp Cedars, Spring Valley’s ability to support life, and a place of cultural significance for a historically oppressed people. Las Vegas will swell and, as it gets bigger, will require ever more water to support itself. Eventually, the city will reach farther and farther to steal water destroying community after community until it cannot find enough. Then, it will collapse.  Many of those who have been forced to rely on the city’s infrastructure for the necessities of life will perish. These will be grievous wounds, of course. And they give us all the reason we need to know that SNWA must be stopped.

There are wounds that strike even deeper than these, though. They are wounds that scrape our spirits. They are aimed at our souls. They erase our collective memory and chill our courage to resist. Understanding the Swamp Cedars, listening to their stories, and sharing their memories helps us to regain our own memories. Regaining our memories will enable us to see more clearly.

What will we see when we see clearly?

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We will see that this culture’s pattern of abuse is not inevitable. Las Vegas’ water shortage is the result of a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts that both leads to and springs from the growth of cities. Cities are groups of people living in place in populations high enough to require the importation of the necessities of life like water. This is a way of life built on drawdown and can never be sustainable.

Contrast this to the hunter/gatherer culture practiced by the Shoshone – the people who will suffer the most from SNWA’s water grab. The Shoshone lived sustainably in places like Spring Valley for thousands of years without destroying the land. The dominant culture, on the other hand, has been in the area since the 1850s. And, already in this comparatively short time, the Great Basin is on the verge of collapse.

Central to Shoshone culture is the idea that the Swamp Cedars are sacred. As the Shoshone teach that the victims of the Swamp Cedars massacres remain in the trees, they ensure that the lessons of these massacres will never be forgotten so long as both the Shoshone and the Swamp Cedars survive.

It is in the Swamp Cedars’ sacredness that we find one of the prime motivations for the dominant culture’s destruction of the Swamp Cedars, for the destruction of indigenous peoples’ sacred places around the world, and ultimately for the annihilation of every last indigenous culture. In destroying the Swamp Cedars, in destroying sacred places, and in destroying indigenous cultures, the dominant culture destroys examples of true sustainability. The dominant culture wants to erase all memory that there are other, more beautiful ways to live.

For the vast majority of human history and in lands around the world, humans built cultures based on the notion that all living beings are sacred. Fish, birds, and animals were our kin. Mountains housed gods, rivers spoke the mysteries of existence, and spirits lived in the trees. When every living being is sacred, it is sacrilegious to destroy wantonly and the kind of total annihilation we face today is simply unthinkable.

When a small minority of human cultures banished the sacred to abstract sky gods or denied the possibility of the sacred in any form, they turned a living, speaking world into so much material to use. Surrounded, as this small minority was, by humans who still remembered the sacredness of all life, this small minority was incredibly insecure. To maintain the lies, they had to destroy the reminders. Natural community after natural community, species after species have fallen victim to this culture. The dominant culture operates as a serial killer. And, just like a serial killer, the dominant culture will destroy every last scrap of the evidence of its crimes if we let it.

The Swamp Cedars, by their sacredness to the Shoshone, by the memories they carry, by their very existence, betray the unspeakable evils committed by this culture. The dominant culture cannot afford for the Swamp Cedars to continue teaching the world about life. The Swamp Cedars must survive. We must stop the SNWA water grab and biocidal projects everywhere.

For more information about stopping the SNWA water grab, please see the Great Basin Water Network and Deep Green Resistance Southwest Coalition

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