When Harry Met Vegas

Harry Reid, the Democrats' Senate leader, is a darling of national environmentalists.
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In a city running out of water, massive housing projects rise in clouds of dust on the outer reaches of the Las Vegas Valley like stucco ramparts built by some demented desert king. Just over the hills to the east, Lake Mead, which is on the Colorado River, the area's main water source, is literally drying up. Runaway population growth and a historic drought have rendered the nation's largest reservoir a virtual drainage ditch, down to a skeletal 48 percent of capacity. Yet construction in Las Vegas continues unabated. The city's latest megaproject is a master-planned "sustainable community" of 16,000 homes-anchored by a high-rise "neighborhood" casino-to be built about 15 miles northwest of the Las Vegas Strip, at the gateway to beloved Mount Charleston, part of the region's only national forest.

The method to this head-in-the-sand madness has its roots in faraway Washington, D.C., in a plan quietly aided by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. (View slideshow.) In 2004, with the water level at Lake Mead plummeting and panic setting in that Las Vegas might actually need to curtail its blistering growth, Nevada's senior senator helped to push through a reprieve. He co-sponsored a law granting the Southern Nevada Water Authority a free right-of-way on federal land to pipe groundwater into Las Vegas from central Nevada, hundreds of miles away. The $3 billion plumbing plan would tap the Great Basin aquifer, a vast underground sink that runs from Death Valley, in California, across central Nevada and into western Utah. Think Muammar Qaddafi and his Great Man-Made River Project in the Libyan Sahara, or Roman Polanski's Chinatown, the 1974 film based on what happened when a similarly thirsty Los Angeles turned California's Owens Valley into a dust bowl a century ago. As the Great Basin's groundwater is drained, desert springs and seeps will dry up, endemic plants and wildlife will die off, and farms and ranches will wither away, according to several scientists who have studied the plan. Eventually, the aquifer, which took millennia to fill, will run out, like other Nevada mother lodes mined into oblivion. What then for Las Vegas, whose civic boosters won't accept that the driest desert in North America isn't the best place for another million people in addition to the nearly 2 million already there?

Reid, the enabler, is actually a darling of environmentalists on the East and West Coasts. In 2005, the influential League of Conservation Voters gave him a perfect score for his voting record on environmental issues in the Senate (though his score dipped in 2006), and he is roundly praised by the national Sierra Club for his opposition to a laundry list of things it is against, among them coal-fired power plants and oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Yet the national Sierra Club and other major environmental groups made nary a peep when the bill enabling the pipeline passed or when Reid co-sponsored legislation to sell off large chunks of government land in the Las Vegas Valley to developers intent on extending metropolitan sprawl. Reid's relationship with the national Sierra Club is so harmonious that he even briefed Carl Pope, the group's executive director and one of Reid's friends, on the pipeline gambit. Pope says the senator's heads-up was just a courtesy. "He said, 'Look, it's important to me that we deal with our water supply problems in Clark County. This appears to be the best way,' " Pope recalls. "That's the level at which we discussed it." The Sierra Club focuses on broad issues such as climate change and generally doesn't make regional water disputes a high priority. And it certainly doesn't give Reid any sort of "pass," Pope adds.

In his home state, Reid often leaves the local green movement seeing red, for he is the godfather of and rainmaker for the two Nevada industries-the casino-real-estate-development nexus and hard-rock mining-that critics say are the state's leading despoilers and polluters. He was the guiding force behind shelving mining-law reform in a Senate-House conference committee in 1994, allowing several of the world's biggest mining companies to continue denuding and dewatering large swaths of northern Nevada. (Reid, in a written statement, said he hopes to support some mining reforms in the current Congress.)

Even some of his high-profile wilderness protection plans have come at a high price, bundled as they are with federal land sales that give developers access to vast acreage once off-limits to building. "Whatever Las Vegas wants, Las Vegas gets, and Harry Reid makes sure that happens," says Janine Blaeloch, founder of Western Lands Project, a Seattle nonprofit that has closely monitored the senator's sell-off of government land for Las Vegas growth. "What's so dismaying is that he gets away with it, because the big environmental groups are bought in."

Indeed, some environmentalists worry that what's happening in Las Vegas can be seen as a harbinger of looming water crises in many fast-growing areas across the country. "The decision to pursue this kind of water transfer is, in part, a decision to avoid a debate about urban growth that cities like Las Vegas need to have," says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, in Oakland, California. The think tank recently co-authored a study that found that Las Vegas, through more conservation, could save nearly as much water as it plans to take from central Nevada. "How fair is it to look for more and more water, farther and farther afield, when we're using the water we have improperly?" Gleick asks.

The pipeline idea stems from a mind-set in Southern Nevada that embraces growth at any cost. In the summer of 2007, residents of northwest Las Vegas were livid when the developer of the sustainable community planned near Mount Charleston proposed building a high-rise casino in the heart of the new suburb. Despite a rare flare-up of grassroots opposition, the proposal cleared the Las Vegas City Council, carried by the district's own councilman, who doubles as a leader of the powerful Southern Nevada construction union.

In a transient city, where many people come to start over or retire, few residents seem to pay much attention to civic affairs; turnout for municipal elections in June was 8 percent. So Southern Nevada is essentially run by a plutocracy of 50 gaming and real estate bosses and their anointed political friends, says one longtime Reid observer. "Everybody who's in that group of 50 people has an interest in more growth," this person says. "It's a growth and extraction culture."

Reid, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is unquestionably a political paradox. The senator prides himself on being a bridge between the old West of his hardscrabble childhood, with its rugged libertarianism and shattered dreams, and the new West of order and opportunity in the Las Vegas suburbs. He was born in 1939, in a busted-down mining town called Searchlight, 58 miles south of Las Vegas. Never bountiful, Searchlight's gold and silver mines had given out in the early 1900s, "leaving behind the diehards, the outcasts, the mavericks, or those too old or too sick to move on," Reid wrote in a 1998 book about his hometown. Whorehouses and gambling halls were Searchlight's mainstays. The town's first pool was built by a bordello owner for his prostitutes but was open to kids one day a week.

Reid's father eked out a living scavenging ore that the big mining companies had overlooked, until he eventually committed suicide after severe bouts of drinking and depression. The family's misfortunes had begun with Reid's grandfather, John Reid. In 1910, the young homesteader discovered freshwater, which he hoped to tap for farming, on one of his mining claims near Searchlight. But a rival rancher wrested control of the desert spring through an offer John Reid didn't like but "could not refuse." Without water, the Reid homestead withered and died.

Reid has balanced his obsession with growth-and water's incontestable role in that growth-with important environmental initiatives over the years, says Jeff van Ee, a retired Environmental Protection Agency scientist who has worked on Nevada environmental issues since 1972. The senator was one of the first Las Vegas politicians to seek environmentalists' support, Van Ee says. Reid was instrumental in trying to save lakes Walker and Pyramid and the Truckee River, enraging farmers and ranchers in the eastern Sierra. He has led the fight against dumping nuclear waste in Nevada's Yucca Mountain and advocated making the state a hotbed of solar power. Last fall, he angered some rural Nevadans by opposing plans for three new coal-fired power plants in the eastern part of the state because of their greenhouse-gas emissions. At the same time, Reid has become the unchallenged master of the environmental dealmaking that has enabled Las Vegas sprawl. The pipeline deal is the prime example. "If Harry Reid weren't in office, I think the situation would be bleaker," says Van Ee, who once worked in Reid's Washington office. "There's a feeling in Southern Nevada-and Harry Reid is part of it-of manifest destiny: It's our future to grow. We're creating an economic, cultural, entertainment mecca that many people wish to come to. What can be wrong with that? But there's a failure on all fronts, at almost every level, to meaningfully engage the public about potential impacts and alternatives. It's all behind closed doors."

Reid's supporters and their pro-development cohorts see much of the criticism of the senator as alarmist and unfair. In his statement, Reid said he is proud of his land bills for setting aside 2.5 million acres of wilderness in Nevada over the past eight years, adding that those laws have "created transparent and limited processes to guide the growth." As for the pipeline, Reid acknowledged that population explosion and drought are posing "difficult choices" for Nevada. Federal and state regulators are reviewing the pipeline plan, he wrote, and "will have final say on its development." Southern Nevada's water managers say there's nothing to worry about with the pipeline, if for no other reason than that the district is bound by an accord it signed in 2006 with several agencies of the Department of the Interior that will force the state water authority to shut off the pumps at the first sign of trouble. "This organization is about as environmentally friendly as you'll ever find a water agency," says Richard Wimmer, the Southern Nevada Water Authority's deputy general manager. "But we'll never know what the precise impacts are until we stress the system."

There's a reason 87 percent of Nevada's land is still owned by the federal government. The U.S. secured the territory at gunpoint from Mexico in 1848, but except for some isolated homesteads and mining claims, few people wanted to settle in the arid plains or jagged mountain ranges that thrust upward from the desert floor every 30 miles or so across the state. The area's largest private landowner was once Howard Hughes, who made an unsuccessful attempt in the 1950s to move his aircraft company from Los Angeles to a 25,000-acre site he bought west of the Las Vegas Strip. The eccentric billionaire also acquired several high-rise casinos in the center of town. (Paranoid and addled by drugs, he holed up for years in the penthouse of one of them.) The region's other land baron has always been the U.S. government. "A common fallacy is that growth in Las Vegas just happened," says Daniel Patterson, a former ecologist at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that controls two-thirds of all land in the state. "It didn't. This is the town that Congress built."

In concert with fellow Nevada senator John Ensign, Reid radically changed the rules for privatizing Western lands. Until the late 1990s, Congress limited the federal land agency to disposing of no more than 700 acres a year in the Las Vegas Valley, all within a relatively small area surrounding the city's center. Starting in 1998, Reid co-sponsored laws pushed through by Nevada's congressional delegation that enlarged the B.L.M.'s "disposal boundary" in the valley all the way to the foot of the mountain ranges outside the city. The 78,000 acres of land designated for the auction block-an area equivalent to roughly half the developed acreage in all of Clark County-unlocked the valley to metropolitan sprawl as far as the eye could see. Since 1998, builders have blitzed the county with more than 244,000 new housing units, a 50 percent surge in the county's housing stock. The influx of new residents to Clark County has run as high as 6,000 a month-or one every seven minutes. Yet most environmentalists looked the other way, because as part of legislation disposing of the Las Vegas Valley land, Reid and other members of Congress helped extend federal wilderness protection to 452,000 acres of mostly mountainous terrain in Southern Nevada. "We were naive," says Jane Feldman, of the local Sierra Club chapter, who flew to Washington in 2002 to lobby Congress for what she thought was a wilderness bill. "We underestimated the processes that would force the B.L.M. to auction off those lands for development. We're paying for this astronomically." Feldman says she once confronted Reid at an environmental meeting about the impact of urban sprawl. He told her that the federal government couldn't do much about it and suggested she talk to his eldest son, Rory, now chairman of the Clark County Board of Commissioners, which has wide discretion over land-use decisions.

I met Rory Reid at his day job, at the offices of Lionel Sawyer & Collins, Nevada's biggest law firm. Harry Reid's four sons-ages 33 to 45-have all worked for the firm, which represents many of the state's major casinos, developers, and mining companies. (Rory is also the Nevada chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.) A graduate of Brigham Young University and its law school, Rory has the same earnest bearing that has long burnished his father's reputation as Nevada's "Mr. Cleanface." (The moniker reportedly came from a Kansas City mobster, who boasted on an F.B.I. wiretap in the late 1970s that he had Mr. Cleanface in his pocket. The F.B.I. investigated Reid, then chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, and found no basis for the claim.) Rory, who is also vice chairman of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, says it's nonsense that he or his dad coddle developers; the region's growth is driven by "huge economic forces" that politicians can't easily control. Southern Nevada needs the Great Basin's water, he says, to ease its dangerous reliance on dwindling Lake Mead. "If not this, what?" Rory asks.

The Great Basin pipeline route extends north from Las Vegas alongside U.S. 93 into the majestic Coyote Springs Valley. The mountain-rimmed plain, about 50 desolate miles north of the city, is the site of one of the most ambitious desert development plans ever undertaken in Nevada. In 1998, one of Reid's closest friends, Harvey Whittemore, gained control of 43,000 acres of raw Coyote Springs Valley scrubland from a defense contractor that decided not to use the area for a missile range. Whittemore, a senior partner at Lionel Sawyer who was once ranked Nevada's most powerful lobbyist by the Reno Gazette-Journal, drew up plans for a whole new city in the desert, a metropolis with 159,000 homes, 5,700 acres of commercial development, and 15 golf courses. To proceed, however, he needed to get rid of a mile-wide federal right-of-way for electric-power lines that, as title maps showed, ran right through the property.

At first, Reid and others simply wrote language into one of his public-lands bills moving the right-of-way-at no cost to Whittemore-to a parallel stretch of federal land across narrow Route 93. But after questions were raised by Senate staffers, lawmakers dropped that provision; ultimately, Whittemore and his investors paid $10 million to buy the power-line easement. But the project may benefit from something immeasurably more important in the legislation: the separate water-pipeline rights-of-way granted to Lincoln County and the Southern Nevada Water Authority that cleared the path across hundreds of miles of federal land to bring Great Basin groundwater to the new city and, beyond, to Las Vegas. "It's leapfrog-sprawl development at its absolute worst," says Feldman.

At one point, the B.L.M. even tried to buy back the Coyote Springs Valley site, with funds from the sale of federal lands around Las Vegas, says Bob Abbey, who ran the agency's Nevada operations at the time. (No specific offer was made because Whittemore declined to sell.) "I knew the controversy that would arise from a residential development that far away from the infrastructure," Abbey says. Instead, with Reid's intervention in Washington and help from the senator's second son, Leif, in Nevada, Whittemore reached agreements with two federal agencies to overcome environmental objections. In 2005, ground was broken for the massive project's first golf course, the Jack Nicklaus-designed centerpiece of the West's first official P.G.A. Village.

Progress has been swift. At the entrance to the half-paved Coyote Springs Parkway, several lush fairways and rippling ponds shimmer like a mirage against the brown desert rocks. The surreal scene, framed on the east and west by 7,000-foot crags, smacks of the first human colony on Mars. Powerful sprinklers blast water over the emerald lawns, though the liquid mostly vaporizes in the warm breeze. Huge earthmovers grade sand and rocks at the edges of the 11th and 13th greens, as gardeners in golf carts shuttle water to newly planted trees. At the site's nursery, a pair of young men, who say they each commute more than 100 miles a day to work here, tend a variety of desert plants, along with rows of thirsty non-native ash and mesquite trees. A well driller in a white pickup near a fenced-in pond says the project is currently sucking water from 1,200 feet underground. "Pumping rural groundwater in the teeth of a drought for golf courses?" says George Knapp, a Las Vegas columnist and popular TV investigative reporter, who first worked as a cabdriver when he moved to the city in 1979. "The sheer arrogance of the whole damn thing is unbelievable."

A few hundred miles north of Coyote Springs, Snake Valley slopes gradually into Utah, winding through spare and beautiful land-vast, irrigated farmscapes in green circles etched out of the scrub desert, studded by the time-sanded peaks of the southern Snake Mountains. Studies by Utah geologists show Southern Nevada's pumps could permanently alter groundwater flow throughout the eastern Great Basin, depleting the water table for 60 miles inside Utah. Lawmakers there have asked the government to perform a detailed study of the potential impact of pumping before the pipeline proceeds. But Reid is refusing to allocate money for a study, saying the U.S. Geological Survey has already examined the area's water supply.

In the Utah hamlet of Callao, at Snake Valley's northern end, Cecil Garland, 82, runs heifers on 540 acres of rangeland. This is his second stint in the area. When he returned from Europe after World War II, he hitchhiked to Las Vegas, where, working as a croupier for 10 years, he got to know Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel-a "quite likable, big, good-looking Jewish boy"-and sat on rooftops to watch atomic mushroom clouds. "Took four and a half seconds till the shaking started," he recalls. After some time in Montana, Garland moved with six cows to Callao (population: five families) and married the local schoolteacher. Now he's trying to save his ranch for his grandkids. "By what stretch of the imagination do they think they can come to one of the driest valleys in the world and strip the area of water to sustain a building boom that can't be sustained?" he asks. "Even if not a soul lived here, it would be immoral to strip this valley's water. Where do they go next?"

Garland says drought and overpumping have already caused the valley's shallow aquifer to drop several feet in recent years. He points to proof: dried-out greasewood on stretches of his land where the native shrub-which has roots that go down 45 feet in search of water-once thrived. If the greasewood goes, he says, the valley's topsoil turns to dust and goes with it. Another bad omen: a forlorn cow buried up to her ears in a mud hole. Garland says his kids used to jump off a tractor into the same spring-fed water hole. Now it's a crater of thick black mud. Cows venture into it for a drink and get stuck. This one, spooked by Garland, who wades in after her, claws her way into some tall reeds but can't gain enough traction to climb out. Garland lassos her with a metal chain, and his Peruvian cowhand drags her out of the hole with a pickup.

"This water battle is the toughest fight I've had," says Garland, over beef stew in his ranch house, in a grove of cottonwood and silver maple trees. Outside, a Confederate flag dangles from a pole; Garland, who was raised in North Carolina, calls himself an unreconstructed Southerner. He vents about President Lincoln but also about today's environmentalists, whose "sole purpose," he claims, is to perpetuate their own power by raising more and more money from donors. "I've been telling my people, 'When Harry Reid speaks, I see no reason for us to tremble,'" he says. Garland believes they've lined up help from a commanding source-the Mormon Church, whose opposition to the MX missile project in the early 1980s was instrumental in killing it. The church owns several thousand acres of ranchland in eastern Nevada, where it grows food for various programs. The groundwater fight presents a difficult issue for the Mormon leadership in Salt Lake City. In addition to Reid and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, thousands of other members of the church live on both sides of the Nevada-Utah border, and a large flock resides in Las Vegas. In a 2006 letter to Nevada's state water engineer, the church defended its water rights against Southern Nevada's encroachment. "They're the only ones I know who can stand eyeball to eyeball, toe-to-toe with Harry Reid and the Southern Nevada Water Authority," Garland says.

Close by, the carbonate aquifer surfaces in a magnificent chain of clear blue ponds thick with aquatic life. The 17,900-acre oasis, called Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, draws about 2,300 visitors a year and wave after wave of migratory birds, including the occasional bald eagle and peregrine falcon. The 75-degree water, which fell as rain 5,000 to 14,000 years ago, emerges from deep inside the earth, through fissures in the desert bedrock, and circulates at roughly 30 cubic feet per second among nine impoundment areas. Artifacts date human presence in the area back about 11,000 years.

The springs' hydrology is extremely delicate, explains Jay Banta, who has managed the refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 16 years. When the ponds' drainage is closed off for tests, he says, the water level rises just three feet before the underground source shuts down. This may indicate the weakness of the springs' head pressure-the hydrological force pushing water to the surface. If the head pressure is reduced by pumping water to Las Vegas, Banta says, "what's left might bypass us and go on to the Salt Lake," thus drying up the springs. "Once that flow starts to Las Vegas, you can't kid yourself-it's going to be really hard to stop."

In the Utah hamlet of Callao, at Snake Valley's northern end, Cecil Garland, 82, runs heifers on 540 acres of rangeland. This is his second stint in the area. When he returned from Europe after World War II, he hitchhiked to Las Vegas, where, working as a croupier for 10 years, he got to know Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel-a "quite likable, big, good-looking Jewish boy"-and sat on rooftops to watch atomic mushroom clouds. "Took four and a half seconds till the shaking started," he recalls. After some time in Montana, Garland moved with six cows to Callao (population: five families) and married the local schoolteacher. Now he's trying to save his ranch for his grandkids. "By what stretch of the imagination do they think they can come to one of the driest valleys in the world and strip the area of water to sustain a building boom that can't be sustained?" he asks. "Even if not a soul lived here, it would be immoral to strip this valley's water. Where do they go next?"

Garland says drought and overpumping have already caused the valley's shallow aquifer to drop several feet in recent years. He points to proof: dried-out greasewood on stretches of his land where the native shrub-which has roots that go down 45 feet in search of water-once thrived. If the greasewood goes, he says, the valley's topsoil turns to dust and goes with it. Another bad omen: a forlorn cow buried up to her ears in a mud hole. Garland says his kids used to jump off a tractor into the same spring-fed water hole. Now it's a crater of thick black mud. Cows venture into it for a drink and get stuck. This one, spooked by Garland, who wades in after her, claws her way into some tall reeds but can't gain enough traction to climb out. Garland lassos her with a metal chain, and his Peruvian cowhand drags her out of the hole with a pickup.

"This water battle is the toughest fight I've had," says Garland, over beef stew in his ranch house, in a grove of cottonwood and silver maple trees. Outside, a Confederate flag dangles from a pole; Garland, who was raised in North Carolina, calls himself an unreconstructed Southerner. He vents about President Lincoln but also about today's environmentalists, whose "sole purpose," he claims, is to perpetuate their own power by raising more and more money from donors. "I've been telling my people, 'When Harry Reid speaks, I see no reason for us to tremble,'" he says. Garland believes they've lined up help from a commanding source-the Mormon Church, whose opposition to the MX missile project in the early 1980s was instrumental in killing it. The church owns several thousand acres of ranchland in eastern Nevada, where it grows food for various programs. The groundwater fight presents a difficult issue for the Mormon leadership in Salt Lake City. In addition to Reid and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, thousands of other members of the church live on both sides of the Nevada-Utah border, and a large flock resides in Las Vegas. In a 2006 letter to Nevada's state water engineer, the church defended its water rights against Southern Nevada's encroachment. "They're the only ones I know who can stand eyeball to eyeball, toe-to-toe with Harry Reid and the Southern Nevada Water Authority," Garland says.

Close by, the carbonate aquifer surfaces in a magnificent chain of clear blue ponds thick with aquatic life. The 17,900-acre oasis, called Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, draws about 2,300 visitors a year and wave after wave of migratory birds, including the occasional bald eagle and peregrine falcon. The 75-degree water, which fell as rain 5,000 to 14,000 years ago, emerges from deep inside the earth, through fissures in the desert bedrock, and circulates at roughly 30 cubic feet per second among nine impoundment areas. Artifacts date human presence in the area back about 11,000 years.

The springs' hydrology is extremely delicate, explains Jay Banta, who has managed the refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 16 years. When the ponds' drainage is closed off for tests, he says, the water level rises just three feet before the underground source shuts down. This may indicate the weakness of the springs' head pressure-the hydrological force pushing water to the surface. If the head pressure is reduced by pumping water to Las Vegas, Banta says, "what's left might bypass us and go on to the Salt Lake," thus drying up the springs. "Once that flow starts to Las Vegas, you can't kid yourself-it's going to be really hard to stop."

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