The Water Grab is Dead

The Water Grab is Dead

After 31 years of resistance including contributions from Deep Green Resistance, Las Vegas has abandoned a water extraction project on indigenous lands in Nevada.


By Max Wilbert

On May 21st, after a series of legal defeats stretching over years, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) began to withdraw its remaining federal and state applications to build a $10 billion water pipeline.

For three decades, SNWA (the water agency for the Las Vegas area) has worked towards building a 300-mile pipeline and dozens of wells to pump vast amounts of groundwater from Goshute, Paiute, and Shoshone indigenous land in eastern Nevada.

For thirty-one years, the community has fought this project, organizing public events, meetings, public comment, protests, lawsuits, hearings, and beyond. The Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, the Ely Shoshone, and the Duckwater Shoshone played a key role in this resistance, as have the Great Basin Water Network and local government efforts to oppose the project.

Deep Green Resistance began fighting the SNWA water grab in 2013, organizing a series of annual ecology and resistance gatherings in Spring Valley that continued through 2018, participating in lawsuits, elevating voices of the land, and supporting community organizers on the ground. We cannot and will not take credit for this victory, but we are happy today to see this news.

When I first visited the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation in 2013, the building bore a stark message: “SNWA: Sucks Native’s Water Away.” The tribe has stated that “SNWA’s groundwater development application is the biggest threat to the Goshute way of life since European settlers first arrived on Goshute lands more than 150 years ago.”

Life in the Great Basin’s valleys, human and otherwise, depends on shallow groundwater, springs, and creeks, which in turn depend on groundwater flows from rain and snow in mountain ranges. Water is life.

There is a place on the floor of the “Sacred Water Valley” or Bahsahwahbee, more commonly known as Spring Valley, where there grows an ecologically unique grove of Rocky Mountain Juniper Trees, where violets bloom and springs bubbling pure water from the Earth.

My friend Delaine Spilsbury, a board member of the Great Basin Water Network and Newe indigenous elder, writes:

“Bahsahwahbee is not just a piece of tribal history. It is American history and a harbinger of the future of indigenous communities. Military officials and vigilantes murdered Newe people there during three massacres between 1850 and 1900. Victims included women, children and elders whose bodies were viciously mutilated. Because it was such a violent event, the spirits of those desecrated are believed to remain in the shallow-rooted Rocky Mountain Juniper trees, referred to as Swamp Cedars. We Shoshone people still visit this location to show our respect for our Elders.  To this day, Bahsahwahbee remains a place of mourning for my people.

My grandmother, Laurene Mamie Swallow, survived the Bahsahwahbee massacre of 1897. Oral histories that she and other tribal elders shared, along with documentation from military officials, have served as the historical basis for what we know about the site today.

Despite that information, it is important to note that Bahsahwahbee is more than a place in history. The Swamp Cedars would be lost forever if large-scale pumping were to occur at the site. And, therefore, the ability for indigenous people to practice their spiritual beliefs would be gone too.”

Today, the spirits in the Swamp Cedars can, perhaps, rest a bit easier. But only for now. There still remain countless threats to the Great Basin. Mining is devastating the region. The destruction of Pinyon-Juniper forests continues. Urban sprawl continues to metastasize into the desert, and countless species are on the brink of extinction. Nuclear waste continues to impact indigenous communities. As global warming melts snowpack in the Rocky Mountains and the Colorado River shrinks, cities like Las Vegas will continue to hunt for water—potentially leading to new water grab projects.

The pure springs of these valleys are not safe, and nor are the Swamp Cedars. While land protectors focus on climate change and the Amazon rainforest, countless other parts of our living planet face destruction without appreciation. We must protect all of this world, and that means challenging every water extraction project, every logging plan, every new mine, every factory—even to the fundamental pillars of industrial civilization itself.

For life on this planet to continue, industrial civilization must come to an end. So rejoice, because the water grab is dead. And then get back to the struggle.

Prayer walk for sacred water in the Mojave desert, home to numerous indigenous nations, a wide array of biodiversity, springs, wildflowers, ungulates, tortoises, lizards, birds, and some of the more remote lands in North America. The Mojave’s most serious threats come from the military, urban sprawl, and industrial solar development.

Max Wilbert is a third-generation political dissident, writer, and wilderness guide. He has been involved in grassroots organizing for nearly 20 years. His essays have been published in Earth Island Journal, Counterpunch, DGR News Service, and elsewhere, and have been translated into at least 6 languages. His second book, Bright Green Lies: The False Promises of Mainstream Environmentalism, will be released soon. Photos by the author.

5 thoughts on “The Water Grab is Dead”

  1. Water is a great indicator of human overpopulation. The only way to get water naturally is to live off SURFACE water (not well water and certainly not piped water). In order for humans to live off surface water alone, human population would have to much lower, and I mean MUCH. The water sought to be stolen in this issue was for development, but most water stolen from native ecosystems is used for agriculture, which of course is used to feed the hordes of overpopulated humans. So no matter how you analyze it, we need to greatly lower human population if we’re ever going to stop destroying ecosystems by stealing their water.

  2. Las Vegas and Phoenix are probably the two largest cities on earth where there should be no city at all (not that cities should be anywhere). I’m old enough to remember when Las Vegas was a city of 50,000, instead of a million. And why is it there? To collect money from fools.

    Water law governing the Colorado River basin goes back 90 years or so, and generally favors upstream over downstream users — meaning that no matter how much they want it, cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas stand in line behind farms and ranches in Western Colorado, etc. Last year, for the first time, hydrologists forecast a Colorado basin water crisis, where this law would have come into play, with federally mandated rationing. It didn’t quite happen, but it’s just a matter of time.
    Scientists now say the Southwestern U.S. and Northern Mexico are entering the worst drought in the last 1000 years.

    About 60 years ago, Saudi Arabia began irrigating the desert with groundwater, and temporarily became a net exporter of wheat. That aquifer was completely drained by 2016, and Saudi Arabia was forced to abandon wheat farming altogether, and stop pretending the country is anything other than a desert.

    Well, not quite. They just moved it to the Arizona desert, contracting with farmers there to grow Saudi wheat and alfalfa, and ship it halfway around the world for consumption. In the absence of any meaningful environmental laws, this is quickly destroying Arizona’s aquifer, too — and so blatantly that not a single farmer there was willing to be interviewed by the producers of “Planet of the Humans.”

    In 2012, scientists said that aquifers in at least 20 nations (including the U.S., China, and India, the world’s 3 largest grain producers) were on the verge of collapse, and would begin running dry by 2020. This has already happened on the Arabian peninsula, and is fast approaching in the U.S. Due to aquifer depletion, surface land has dropped 10 feet or more above aquifers from Iowa to California. And as a result of groundwater depletion, climate change, etc., it is now estimated that the world as a whole will meet only 60% of civilization’s water demands by 2030. That’s a polite way of saying a global famine.

    Jeff mentioned population, which is the other side of the equation. Population is rapidly increasing throughout the 3rd World, where hundreds of millions of people will face starvation over the coming generation. Due partly to the coronavirus, the U.N. said last week that 100 million people could be out of food within a year, with estimates of 700 million or more by 2050. And with the multiple unknowns of climate change-driven droughts, sea level rise, topsoil destruction (30% lost in just 40 years), etc., the numbers will likely be even larger. Today’s refugee crisis is a tiny trickle, compared to what is coming, as soon as next year.

    Those of us who warn about overpopulation are often accused of racism, which is crazy. I’m not worried about starving Africans and Latinos coming after me, because they won’t get here. Emergency planners have seen this coming for years. The Pentagon has had contingency plans for closing the Southern border since at least the 1980s. India already has a barrier to keep 100 million starving Bangladeshis from crossing into India (which could have a famine of its own soon, with the locust swarm heading there from Africa).

    When we warn about Africa’s population doubling in 30 years, the worry is about Africa. We in America will have problems of our own, when those aquifers run dry. (And it isn’t just alfalfa to feed Saudi camels. Two of the biggest drains on California water are China’s market for almonds and cattle — neither of which are necessities. Most California almond farms are also owned by absentee speculators, who are simply cashing in on the market.)

    Population and resource depletion are like two runaway trains, heading for each other on the same track. And humanity could control both, if we had the will to do so. Nations could impose small financial penalties on multi-child families, such as cutting off child tax credits after the 1st child, etc. We could also reverse water and topsoil loss, simply by ending destructive agricultural practices, and eliminating the production of frivolous, water wasting crops, like beef, almonds, and wine grapes.

    As usual, it’s all up to us, and whether we organize society for profit, or for survival.

  3. US Americans who claim to worry about “Africans and Latinos” should begin by demanding their military to fuck off from our countries.

    Just saying.

  4. @Mark Behrend
    I don’t worry about any humans regarding overpopulation, African or otherwise. My concern, as it is with all environmental and ecological issues, is everything but humans. Humans as a whole are thriving, and I only advocate for “the least of us,” which is everything on Earth but humans and their domesticated animals. Human overpopulation leaves no room for other species, that’s the problem. If humans can’t eat because there are too many of them, that’s merely and simply a natural result of overpopulation and would be experienced by any species. Humans have unfortunately circumvented the natural population controls, starting with use of agriculture, so humans will experience overpopulation-caused starvation differently for that reason, but we’re no different from any other animal in that once your group overpopulates, some if not many members starve.

    @I.
    This is the fist thing I’ve read on this site by you that I agree with. Militaries and intelligence agencies are evil tools of empire and of nation/states, and the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus are the worst of them. As far as I’m concerned, the U.S. is the worst entity that’s ever existed on Earth, and will destroy the vast majority of life here if not stopped.

    On a personal level, I wish I had moved to Europe when Adolf Hitler, er, I mean Ronald Reagan was elected as my gut instinct told me to do, but I didn’t know anyone outside the U.S. then like I do now and didn’t know how to move without becoming destitute in a foreign country with no citizenship. But screw it, I should have done it anyway. Really hate this place (the people and the society, not the land or the wildlife, which is great), wish I hadn’t been born here.

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