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July 23, 2014

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Does the river run through here?

There's a yarn that's spun in this drought-parched desert region of the existence of an underground river more abundant than the mighty Colorado.

There's supposedly a 500-million-year-old raging river that at one point in Southern Nevada flows about 500 feet below the Earth's surface. It can produce enough water -- liquid gold, some call it -- to meet the daily needs of 100 million people.

So the legend of Wally's River goes.

While scientists and water officials say no such river runs through here, proponents of the legend insist that Wally's River does exist and could quench the thirst of the West for generations to come. They say why not at least do some studies to determine whether the theory holds water?

"I am still trying to figure a way to prove the water is there," said Beverly Jacob, longtime friend and business partner of native Nevada Robert Wallace "Wally" Spencer, a rocket scientist who gained widespread attention in the mid-1990s for his theory of the existence of Wally's River.

"Wally and I drilled six wells. He expected that we would drill into two open caverns. We hit enough mud to fill two 18,000-foot holes, but we didn't find caverns. Our results were inconclusive. When I prove it exists, I will take the findings back to the state engineer to see what to do next."

Spencer, who died two years ago at age 73, used high-tech imaging radar, satellite maps and sophisticated drilling equipment in his search. State and local officials were skeptical of Spencer's theory then and are no more convinced today of the existence of a great hidden river.

"It does not seem plausible," said Nevada State Engineer Hugh Ricci, whose agency issues permits for water drilling and oversees distribution of water statewide.

Ricci said that while there are limestone caverns that do have water, a large underground river would have to flow through a wide expanse of underground caverns, the existence of which, he says, is doubtful.

Alan Welch, a longtime hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Nevada Water Science Center, said "studies throughout the state have shown there is no credible evidence of an underground river."

"Some of the claims of a mysterious source of water flowing across the state and under the Sierras are quite far-fetched."

Spencer, who earned a chemical engineering degree from the University of Utah, popped onto the Southern Nevada water scene seemingly out of nowhere. A renowned specialist in solid rocket fuel propellant, he designed space shuttle boosters and had worked for, among others, Lockheed Propulsion and Aerojet General.

Eleven years ago, Spencer started appearing frequently at Colorado River Commission meetings, where he would speak about the boundless potential benefits of his hidden waterway.

"Wally was an absolutely brilliant man," said former Colorado River Commissioner Larry Scheffler. "I just don't think he drilled in enough places. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

"He had a great idea. He just died too soon. If he could have proved it (the existence of Wally's River), almost any fee was not unreasonable. We are talking about liquid gold."

Jacob, owner of a private elementary school in Lake Oswego, Ore., returns frequently to dig at a secret Southern Nevada desert location where Spencer believed that the river flows just several hundred feet beneath the Earth's crust. In other locations, it runs as deep as 40,000 feet, he theorized.

Jacob, 64, says the secret location is 90 to 100 miles from Las Vegas, but she won't say in which direction. That's to prevent others from trying to cash in on the hard work she and Spencer have done over the last dozen years.

Spencer expected to be compensated for that hard work. He asked state officials for $3.5 million to $5 million before he divulged where he believed the river was most likely to be found. He received no compensation from taxpayer funds.

So far, the project has cost $1.2 million, Jacobs said, which she and Spencer funded.

"It was never about the money," Jacob said. "We had invested a considerable sum and we offered to give the water to the state. But we believed that for the work we had done, which included locating the river and doing the tests to prove its existence, we were entitled to a finder's fee."

Spencer's theory caught the attention of television show producers and newspaper editors in the mid-1990s. The TV series "Unsolved Mysteries" did a 1994 episode on Wally's River and major daily newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune did stories about Spencer's theory.

Donald Carns, a UNLV professor of sociology, says people like a good mystery, especially when there is some scientific basis to it.

"People want to believe in something far into the future -- something that transcends life -- and water is a hot issue," said Carns, who teaches, among other things, the sociology of religion.

"Science has in many ways become the kind of thing religion is. If his (Spencer's) ideas look pretty good people could think maybe his theory is right and they believe in it."

Jacob's belief in Spencer's theory of Wally's River remains unwavering.

"On a scale of one to 10, my confidence level is 20," Jacob said. "It is there."

Ed Koch can be reached at 259-4090 or at [email protected]

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