Fast-growing Nevada Town Faces a Crisis Over Water
By: Michael Weissenstein
Las Vegas Review
PAHRUMP, NV — Fresh water once gushed from the dusty soil of Tim Hafen’s desert ranch. Fall turned his fields to white seas of blooming cotton.
But cotton prices stagnated in the late 1970s, and Hafen split the family farm into quarter-acre custom home lots and called it Artesia, in honor of the wells that made prosperity possible in the bone-dry heart of the eastern Mojave.
But wells across town have begun to go dry. Hafen’s life-giving artesian wells have slowed to a 20th of their original flow.
Red-hot growth is draining Pahrump’s underground aquifer and threatening its dwindling water supply with human waste. The ground is sinking beneath residents’ feet as they pump out groundwater faster than nature returns it.
Pahrump has no zoning code and no plans to limit growth. Instead, the unincorporated town 62 miles west of Las Vegas has staked its future on an unlikely source: the Nevada Test Site.
Nye County asked the state two months ago for the right to draw water from the Cold War atomic proving ground, where the Defense Department detonated at least 260 nuclear bombs near or below the water table.
Almost half of Pahrump’s supply would come from the test site aquifers 30 miles to the north. County officials estimate as much as 4.8 million acre-feet of that water could be radioactive. Scientists do not know when uranium and plutonium isotopes could start to flow through the town’s remote wells.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Tom Buqo, the county hydrogeologist. “Las Vegas pumped their aquifer dry. We’re following in their footsteps and we’re in big trouble.”
The town could pump the test site for decades, even centuries, without drawing radioactive water, Buqo said. And test wells would alert officials years before contamination reached downstream water supply wells.
There is a more immediate threat to Pahrump’s water. Because the town has no public sewer system, thousands of individual septic tanks are flushing nitrogen-rich toilet water into the ground.
“It’s just a matter of time before the groundwater is polluted,” said Environmental Protection Division supervisor Darrell Rasner.
The strain on the valley’s limited groundwater has no foreseeable end.
Pahrump, with an estimated population of 35,000, is expected to grow by at least 125,000 residents in the next 50 years as Las Vegas’ breakneck growth spills into surrounding areas.
New arrivals will be able to drill thousands of wells in coming years because developers for decades exploited a loophole in a state law intended to ensure sustainable water development.
Pahrump is far from unique. The federal Bureau of Reclamation has spent billions of dollars on massive water projects to bring scarce surface water to booming Western cities.
But as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Denver and Phoenix develop problems that new arrivals came to escape, many residents are fleeing to small towns far from metropolitan water infrastructure.
“New Mexico’s out of water, Arizona’s out of water and Southern California’s out of water, but the people just keep coming,” Buqo said.
This hardscrabble cluster of mobile home parks and legal brothels is becoming a bedroom community of a different sort. Commuters and retirees are building hundreds of new homes a year in Pahrump, transforming a town with two stoplights into a Las Vegas suburb.
“My perception is that the class of people here is improving dramatically,” said Donna Lamm, a real estate broker who moved from Las Vegas in 1977. “There are people coming here that can afford custom homes instead of single-wide mobiles.”
The selling price of an average home in Pahrump went to $133,790 in 1999 from $93,540 in 1995.
Residents who 40 years ago drove a 70-mile dirt road to buy groceries in Las Vegas sing the praises of two gleaming new supermarkets.
“It’s still the Wild Old West out here, but it’s changing fast,” said Pahrump’s best-known resident, Art Bell, a radio talk show host retiring from his nationally syndicated program on the paranormal. “At this point the debate is whether we begin to control the growth or we just let it go, and they’re just letting it go.”
Officials scoff at the suggestion that they should constrain the town’s expansion.
“If you stop growing, you die,” said Nye County Commissioner Ira “Red” Copass. “We just need to do it in an orderly manner, which we’re not doing.”
It’s like pulling a rug out from someone’s feet.
As an underground aquifer shrinks, the ground above the water table begins to drop. The soil stretches and shifts unevenly, creating cracks in the earth called subsidence fissures.
The Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology has charted a mile-long line of 3-foot-wide fissures near Tim Hafen’s ranch.
“These things opened up in very close proximity to homes,” state geologist John Bell said.
In Las Vegas, continuing subsidence has buckled home foundations, cracked roads and popped windows out of their frames. North Las Vegas and the Federal National Mortgage Association expect to spend as much as $16 million to bail out residents of the Windsor Park subdivision, where subsidence tore some homes nearly in half.
Government bailouts could become common in Pahrump as the valley continues to settle, Buqo said.
At the heart of Pahrump’s water problems is a subtle distinction between two ways of splitting land into smaller pieces. It’s a difference some of the town’s developers used to create thousands of home lots without the water to sustain them.
Developers usually cut big parcels into smaller lots under a process known as subdivision. Under Nevada law, subdivision requires a developer to own the often-expensive rights to enough water for the new homes. Developers of subdivisions must get approval to pump water from the state engineer, whose job is to protect Nevada’s groundwater by granting or refusing the right to draw water.
In contrast, parceling allows individuals to cut up their property into four smaller portions, often to pass them on to heirs. It carries no water requirements.
Individual homeowners’ wells are largely exempt from state oversight. Residents who move to a parcel without water rights or municipal service can drill a well without the approval of the state engineer.
The state engineer stopped granting new water rights in Pahrump in the 1950s, when agricultural irrigation began to overtax the water table.
Developers made an end run around the limit by parceling large plots into thousands of single-family lots.
“There was too many of them created too fast and there was no infrastructure put in except gravel roads. There was no real planning effort at all,” Nye County Planning Director Ron Williams said.
The county made no effort to stop the process until 1997, when county commissioners placed a moratorium on land division and subsequently closed the loophole.
But there are already at least 30,000 empty lots in Pahrump without a sustainable water supply. Their future owners will be able to drill thousands of new domestic wells, further taxing Pahrump’s strained aquifer.
To the west, the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is home to 12 endangered or threatened species of birds, plants and fish. To the east, the rugged limestone peaks of the Spring Mountains National Conservation Area collect the rain and snowfall that feed the Pahrump Valley aquifer.
About 26,000 acre-feet of water annually returns to the aquifer. Pahrump pumped an estimated 30,000 acre-feet last year. Demand is expected to reach 80,000 acre-feet by 2050. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to supply a family of four or five for a year.
“We have a serious shortfall,” Buqo said. “We are literally searching for the last drop of water in southern Nye County.”
The plan to draw water off the Nevada Test Site could be derailed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which would ask the state engineer to deny Nye County’s request if federal geologists find it would harm Ash Meadow’s springs.
Some residents believe they can ride the legal coattails of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which plans to challenge the 1928 federal compact prohibiting Nevada from drawing more than 300,000 acre-feet a year from the Colorado River. If Las Vegas someday takes more than its set allocation, they say, then so can Pahrump.
Others deny Pahrump even has a water problem.
“The bottom line is there ain’t a water problem here,” said Harley Kulkin, a six-year resident who owns an air conditioning business.
Feeding such optimism is the common belief that the town sits atop one of the largest aquifers in the United States, a vast underground sea that will never run dry.
It’s an idea discounted by scientists but oft-repeated by town officials and in promotional materials from the valley’s chamber of commerce.
“We’ve got enough water because we sit over the third-largest aquifer in the world,” chamber official Brenda Dowell said.
While a huge regional system of deep aquifers runs from White Pine County to Las Vegas, Pahrump is atop an isolated pocket that would be almost impossible for the town to tap, Buqo said.
“It’s a myth,” Buqo said. “They do not (even) have the third-largest aquifer in the state of Nevada.”