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April 21, 2014

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Quenching Las Vegas’ Thirst: Part 4:

Not this water

In a bid to save his family’s livelihood after Las Vegas laid the groundwork for a water pipeline that could reduce his land to dust, a White Pine County rancher joins forces with Utah

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Sam Morris

Springs surface around rancher Dean Baker on Baker Ranch in White Pine County. Baker has vehemently resisted Las Vegas’ designs on his water.

When Southern Nevada Water Authority Manager Pat Mulroy appealed to Congress in 2004 to provide right of way for a pipeline to deliver ground water from the heart of Nevada to Las Vegas, Utah stirred.

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Dean Baker, 69, sits down to a meal with his ranch hands. In 2007 Baker took a spot on a team from Millard County, Utah, determined to have a say in how Snake Valley's water is divided.

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On a dusty corner lot in the tiny town of Baker, a sign reflects the sentiment: Leave Snake Valley's water where it belongs, in Snake Valley. Ranchers in Spring Valley sold out to Las Vegas, but Baker continues the Snake Valley fight.

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Dean Baker checks the progress of work on a drill rig used to bring water to the surface. Baker's 12,000 acres are irrigated by ground water replenished each year by Wheeler Peak's snowmelt.

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Spring Valley's abundance of water helps ensure livelihoods for cattle ranchers, who can grow lush crops of alfalfa.

One of the two sweetest valleys targeted by Las Vegas sat bang on the state line between Nevada and Utah. And not just Utah, but Brigham Young’s chosen seat for the original Utah Territory.

Utah quickly attached a condition to the bill: Before Nevada could draw from any shared water system, both states had to negotiate the amount.

Or, as an incandescent Mulroy described it, Utah gained a “veto” on her pipeline project.

Depending on how the states handled negotiations, what followed could either be a silky case of quid pro quo, or an all-out Western water war.

Each side wanted something from the other. Las Vegas wanted to pump Great Basin ground water on the state line. Utah wanted to get a bill through Congress that would help hook up its booming southern city of St. George to the Colorado River.

As negotiations over how much water Las Vegas could pull from the bistate basin began in September 2005, then kept going through 2006, an unmistakable threat was coming out of the Nevada delegation, led by Senator Harry Reid: If you want the hookup for St. George, give up the water for the Las Vegas pipeline.

You scratch our back, we’ll scratch yours.

But Utah hesitated, unwilling to sign off. So in November 2006, shortly after Democrats won control of the Senate and Reid became majority leader-elect, the threat turned into action. One of the first acts of the Nevada senator’s whip was to round up big Senate guns to oppose the St. George pipeline.

Who knew until then what strong feelings Senators Dick Durbin, Illinois; Russ Feingold, Wisconsin; Robert Menendez, New Jersey; Joe Lieberman, Connecticut; Hillary Clinton, New York; Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey; John Kerry, Massachusetts; and Maria Cantwell, Washington, had about Southern Utah land issues?

In December, the Utah bill failed to pass.

If this was meant to intimidate Utah, it had the opposite effect.

In February 2007, Utah’s government appointed rancher Dean Baker to its negotiating team with Nevada.

Baker Ranch sits smack dab on the state line, at the heart of Las Vegas’ pumping map. Though Baker was born in Utah, by virtue of where his farmhouse sits, he is technically a Nevadan, and as a Nevadan he had spent 18 years opposing the Las Vegas plan. He was the icon of rural opposition.

Nevada and Reid and their parade of power senators had bullied the wrong state and the wrong rancher.

•••

Baker Ranch sits on what has always been some of the best water in the Great Basin.

Snowmelt cascades onto the land every spring from Wheeler Peak, the second-highest mountain in Nevada. Catching the water on either side of Wheeler are two of the most fecund valleys in the region: Spring Valley to the west and Snake Valley to the east.

Nevada to the west, Utah to the east.

Moreover, Wheeler’s snowmelt sustains pressure in a water table extending for hundreds of miles around, well into Nevada’s White Pine County and east into Millard County, Brigham Young’s choice for the seat of the Utah Territory.

To the Shoshone Indians, the mountain was already sacred when Spanish explorers, trappers and then Mormons came through. During the 19th century it went from Shoshone territory to part of Mexico, part of Brigham Young’s Deseret, then the Utah Territory and finally, only after Nevada’s border was tweaked repeatedly in the 1860s, it became Nevada by a whisker.

By the time an Army cartographer named Wheeler showed up to map the area in 1869, a Mormon was farming in Snake Valley.

In the 1870s, a man named Baker moved in. By 1892, Baker Ranch had a post office and a store and was the site of Goshute tribe fandangos celebrating the pine nut harvest.

Baker’s family started buying neighboring farms. Soon Baker Ranch was reputed to be the finest in White Pine County.

It even sprouted a “town” called Baker.

In the 1920s another Baker, Fred Baker, no relation to the then owner of Baker Ranch, showed up to work the hay harvest.

Fred Baker was from Delta, a Utah farm town in Millard County, roughly 100 miles east.

Delta farms have water from the Sevier River, but Delta itself is dry.

In Baker, there was so much water from Mt. Wheeler that streams meandered through the alfalfa fields. A 1920s Snake Valley dude ranch brochure promised “icy streams filled with angry trout” along with ducks, deer, coyotes, mountain lions, wildcats, wolves and antelopes. The description was true, if the trout were indeed angry.

Back in Delta, Fred Baker ran sheep, started an alfalfa seed business and was partner in a flight school that trained World War II veterans as crop-dusters.

He was saving for his dream ranch in his dream valley.

One of Baker’s sons, Dean, was in college, unable to decide among majors — pre-med, chemistry and business — when the call came in 1959 from his father that a lease was available on his dream ranch, so perfect that it already bore their name.

When Dean Baker left the University of Utah the following year, he had chosen a business degree expressly to help his father lease, then buy, Baker Ranch in Baker town.

•••

Half a century later, Dean Baker’s uniform is farmer’s denim, he lives in a small house and often eats cereal for dinner. His life cannot be measured in cars or granite countertops or vacations or clothes, but in land.

Baker “town” is still little more than an intersection with a bar, a grocery store and a gas station.

But Baker Ranch now consists of 12,000 deeded and water-rich acres. In addition, it has grazing rights to so much federal land that on the winter range, cattle from the same ranch might browse 50 miles from one another.

To his neighbors, Dean Baker is a rancher’s rancher, respected for his knowledge of seed and cattle genetics, his weed-free fields, and the care he takes of his workers — at least the ones who don’t leave jobs undone and him to count their cigarette butts.

At the monthly White Pine County Commission meetings, Baker’s the lean, quiet, balding, watchful man who listens to hours of chatter and then sums up what’s important with one simple comment. He’s respected for that.

All in all, an unlikely Lothario.

So when you meet Baker’s ex-wife at the truck stop down the road from his ranch, then find out that the woman in the pink T-shirt with “Outrageous Older Woman” on it is one of four women Baker has married, you are compelled to give the rancher’s rancher a second glance.

One evening late last summer, Baker kept a scheduled interview even after learning that his brother had died from a stroke after a fruitless period on a respirator.

Frogs had started to chorus, an owl to hoot, and Baker was uncharacteristically elegiac.

And vulnerable. It was as good a moment as any to try for an answer to a question that otherwise he probably would not have answered. “What’s with all the wives?”

“I wasn’t a very good husband, no matter how hard I worked at it,” he said.

It turns out that his first wife, whose family owned a summer home near the ranch, had been accustomed to servants and the good life in Southern California before marrying Baker.

The marriage lasted 18 years. His first wife bore him four children before deciding that she needed more than a small ranch house with a gas station behind it.

According to Wife Number Two down at the truck stop, Baker’s passion is flying the Piper J-3 Cub that he uses to reconnoiter those 12,000 acres, sometimes flying under power lines.

“He loves his ranch second,” she says, “and his wives third.”

The second marriage lasted 10 years.

The third marriage he won’t talk about.

Glancing at his fourth wife, the woman pretending to read in the next room, he added, “But I appreciate Barbara and I’m not going to let her get away.”

Looking back, he thinks he never really learned how to talk to girls in high school, where, as one of only two non-Mormons in a tightly knit Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints community, dating was effectively off limits.

He focused on farming instead, mastering the most perilous art of all in Great Basin ranching: developing Mt. Wheeler’s often elusive springs, digging irrigation ditches and hauling water to cattle or getting cattle to water.

•••

Water rights in Nevada are awarded by the state engineer. Applicants file for rights, and the engineer hears the cases and any protests. Within eight months of receiving the transcripts and hearing the last protests, decisions are issued.

The amount of water that might be awarded is directly related to how much the state engineer calculates will be replenished by annual snowmelt, and whether awarding this water will affect existing holders of water rights.

In 1989, when the Las Vegas Valley Water District first applied for rights in Snake Valley, it was part of an unprecedented mass filing, reportedly putting dibs on half of the untapped reserves in the state.

The two basins fed by Wheeler Peak held the sweetest prospects. Rounded off, Southern Nevada Water Authority applied for 90,000 acre-feet in Spring Valley, 50,000 acre-feet in Snake.

Baker was flabbergasted by the number for Snake Valley.

How could Las Vegas imagine that he had somehow missed so much water that it could cover 50,000 acres to a foot deep?

Of this he was sure: Pulling the amount of water Las Vegas wanted would suck dry the springs underlying this Northern Nevada cold desert.

As his neighbors across the county cried “Chinatown,” Baker had a “show-me-the-water” response. He wanted a top-to-bottom audit of local water: what came in from Wheeler’s snowmelt, what went out and how much was left.

But those concerns seemed moot by 1995 because Las Vegas had all but backed off its rural ground water plan, focusing instead on getting more water from the Colorado River.

Then in 2003, as Las Vegas weathered the fourth year of drought on the Colorado, the White Pine County Commission got a call from the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Would White Pine County like to send a man named Dean Baker to be a “stakeholder” in the water authority’s “Integrated Water Planning Advisory Committee?” On the committee, they could work out Las Vegas’ water needs together.

They were all Nevadans.

When Baker heard the news, he decided that it could mean only one thing.

Las Vegas was now truly coming after his water.

Baker gathered his sons together.

“I said, ‘I have to know if any of you want to sell,’ ” he recalls. “Not a one of them did.”

Baker’s stepson from his second marriage, Gary Perea, was on the White Pine County Commission at the time.

While Baker’s sons worked the ranch, Baker asked Perea to attend the meetings with him.

Baker would fly down.

At the first meeting, a jovial, silver-haired man slipped into the seat next to Baker and, according to Baker, announced, “I’m going to sit next to you for the next two years.”

Baker had had a marriage that amounted to less.

The new companion was Richard Bunker.

A former Clark County manager, former head of the Gaming Control Board, former casino executive and one of the country’s top gaming lobbyists, Bunker’s crowning title from newspaper columns was “water king.”

Since using his influence to get Mulroy appointed head of the water district in 1989, Bunker had also become chairman of Nevada’s Colorado River Commission, the state’s water wholesaler to Las Vegas.

There was only one thing that Richard Bunker could possibly want from Dean Baker. Baker Ranch has rights to nearly 40,000 acre-feet of water a year, or roughly a seventh of Las Vegas’ entire allocation from the Colorado River.

“Richard went everywhere that I went,” Baker says of the next 13 months. “I got a newspaper, he got a newspaper. I got the distinct feeling he was assigned to me.”

Baker and Perea watched, listened and rarely spoke. Then Baker noticed the water authority setting up a finance committee to talk about funding the pipeline. He finally had a point to make.

“You also need to set up an independent committee to study the hydrology and see if the water is available,” Baker said.

“They ignored it,” Perea says. “They just moved on.”

When the Southern Nevada Water Authority released a 2005 report summing up the collective deep thoughts from these meetings, it included a letter from Baker reprising his request.

But tucked in next to it was a rebuttal from the executive secretary of the AFL-CIO, saying, “I think we will learn a lot more about basin impacts once we start stressing ground water basins.”

In other words, let pumping begin and see what happens.

Soliciting the opinion of a union leader about rural ground water only sounds crazy. Scientifically, it might be. Politically, however, it tracked nicely. As Perea recalls, “The thing I kept hearing was that MGM Mirage employed more people than lived in White Pine County.”

•••

By January 2006, Las Vegas was ready to begin the legal process of turning its make-or-break 1989 applications into real water.

The first hearing would be for Wheeler’s water flowing into the basin next to Baker’s, Spring Valley.

The dream scenario for Las Vegas would have been to persuade Perea and the rest of the White Pine County Commission to withdraw their protests before the state engineer’s official cutoff date of June 2006.

So Bunker and Mulroy started in. He played good cop, she played bad.

Bunker visited White Pine County. He looked up Perea and called on Baker.

According to Bunker, he and Baker rode to Baker Ranch together. During that visit, Bunker urged, “Dean, don’t dig in.”

Bunker came back to Las Vegas reporting, “Dean has a huge mental block about this whole thing.”

Good cop failed.

Bad cop succeeded.

Mulroy sent observers to White Pine County Commission meetings, fully aware that open meeting laws meant that the commission could not strategize how to fight Las Vegas without her representative in the room.

In January 2006, Mulroy opened a field office in Ely, the seat of White Pine County.

The two sides maneuvered.

The commission extended an offer to Mulroy to provide relief water to Las Vegas to see out the drought on the Colorado, but insisted on a deal stipulating that Las Vegas not become dependent on White Pine ground water.

Las Vegas refused.

The commission asked for an independent body to be put in charge of pumping.

Las Vegas refused.

Mulroy put a $12 million offer on the table as recompense for any loss of revenue to the region and to cover any pumping damage.

White Pine County’s economic development officer crunched the offer and found the $12 million wouldn’t be enough to cover the loss of farming, hunting and tourism income, not to mention the pumping effects.

The White Pine County Commission refused.

By that point, however, Mulroy was making another move. In July 2006, a month after the deadline lapsed for White Pine County to withdraw its protest, she announced the purchase of the huge Spring Valley Robison Ranch for $22 million.

Soon, almost every ranch in Spring Valley was in negotiation with Las Vegas, and the sales were going too fast to count: Harbecke, Phillips, Bransford, Wahoo, El Tejon, Huntsman.

The ranchers figured that once a big city started pumping and the water table fell, they would have no way to keep their alfalfa irrigated or water troughs full. Their ranches would all be worthless. Better to get out at the front end.

As one of them explained as she wept with shame in a local grocery store, she had no choice. None of them did.

Just why Las Vegas spent $78 million — and counting — to buy the ranches is a subject of debate.

Mulroy said she did it to “preserve the ranching lifestyle.” Because water rights are assigned for a specific purpose, to keep that newly acquired ranch water in the short term, the Southern Nevada Water Authority had to enter the alfalfa and cattle business.

Now if Las Vegas’ pumping caused damage in the valley, the only ones to complain would be Mulroy’s hired ranch hands.

Moreover, noted Dean Baker, Las Vegas could use the Spring Valley ranches’ surface water to keep the basin looking pretty and green, at least for a while, to show that Mulroy’s pump-and-see approach worked.

One basin over from Spring Valley, Dean Baker had no idea how much his Snake Valley ranch was worth to Las Vegas.

He had nearly twice the land and three times the water of Spring Valley’s Robison Ranch, which Las Vegas had just purchased for $22 million.

He had no doubt that Las Vegas would buy if he offered to sell.

He also knew that staying meant the fight of his life.

•••

As the White Pine County Commission went ahead in September 2006 protesting the Spring Valley applications before Nevada’s state engineer without the Spring Valley ranchers with it, Baker’s stepson Perea had one last move in mind.

The commission would appeal to the good graces of Senator Reid.

White Pine County had history with Reid.

In 1985, then congressman Reid had sat at Dean Baker’s kitchen table. He was there to talk about creating a national park out of Wheeler Peak.

At first, Baker was opposed. He was worried about grazing and water rights. Reid listened and, Baker now concedes, “He worked diligently.”

When the act creating the Great Basin National Park passed the next year, Reid saw to it that grazing rights were protected. So was Baker’s water. An ebullient Reid phoned Baker from Washington, shouting, “We did it! It’s a done deal!”

Then in 2005, Reid returned to Baker for the opening of a visitors center for Great Basin National Park. He was no longer an idealistic young congressman, but a world-weary senator, and on that day in particular fierce and frustrated after learning of the resignation of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who as a moderate conservative was a swing vote on the right-tilting court.

To his consternation, the group waiting for a private meeting was not there to thank him for the park, or the new multimillion-dollar visitors center. Instead, his former park allies now stood with the ranchers.

Reid’s normal speaking voice is so soft and low, listeners usually strain to hear him. But when a former volunteer challenged him over the Las Vegas pumping plan, Reid roared, “I will not let my legacy be the rape of White Pine County!”

Seven weeks later, aides announced that Reid had seen a doctor about a “transient ischemic attack,” or small stroke.

The following year, as the White Pine County Commission fought and lost in the battle with Mulroy over who would control the Las Vegas pumps planned for Spring Valley ranches, Reid aides returned to the region.

They bore drafts of a sweeping new land bill for White Pine County. This was the latest in a series of bills that, led by Reid, had been putting federal land in Nevada on the auction block, county by county, from south to north.

High among the beneficiaries of the three previous land bills had been the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which received 10 percent of the proceeds from federal land sales.

Land bills also deal with water and White Pine County wanted the new bill to include provisions for a water study that would be much more thorough than the water audit then under way. The county wanted a study modeling what would happen when Las Vegas started pumping.

Reid’s aides stalled, dwelling instead on other issues such as recreational vehicle access and tribal concerns. “Early on we were told, ‘Let’s take care of these other issues. We’ll deal with water later,’ ” Perea says.

Later meant never.

Unbeknown to White Pine County, it was now but a pawn on a much larger chessboard being run in Washington by Reid and Marcus Faust, a powerful D.C. resource lobbyist working for Mulroy.

The battle was no longer Southern Nevada versus Northern Nevada, but Nevada versus Utah.

Baker’s boyhood friends across the state line in Millard County, Utah, were aghast as their own congressional delegation looked split over whether to sacrifice their water to Las Vegas.

The Utah delegation also had a land bill in the works. Modeled on Reid’s Nevada original, this bill would sell some federal land for development, designate some land to wilderness and secure passage of yet another pipeline, this one from the Colorado River to booming St. George.

The Utah bill had problems, not the least that Utahans statewide had begun debating far more publicly than Nevadans ever did about the cost and pace of development in the hot desert.

More water for St. George meant fuel for developers. Slow growth advocates wanted to block the pipeline.

Nonetheless, a tacit understanding had emerged between the Utah and Nevada delegations. Nevada would back Senator Bennett’s Utah land bill and Utah would back Reid’s latest Nevada one in White Pine County.

Except Southern Nevada had a slightly different version of quid pro quo in mind.

In July 2006, freshly victorious after defeating the White Pine County Commission and buying up the ranches of Spring Valley, Mulroy was in Utah, personally delivering the message to the editorial board of the Salt Lake Tribune.

The longer Utah delayed approval of Las Vegas’ water withdrawals from Snake Valley, she said, “the more uncomfortable it will become for Utah. If they can do it to another state, they can have it done to them, too.”

There was no other construction to put on it than: If Utah gave Las Vegas what it wanted from Snake Valley, then her friend Senator Reid might help with them with their bill and their pipeline to St. George.

Even Mulroy’s fans shook their heads.

Had the woman who gave up dreams of a job with the State Department to rise instead in the Las Vegas water world just poked old Deseret with a sharp stick?

She had.

The Utah negotiating team did not give Mulroy what she wanted from Snake Valley.

In the closing days of 2006, over frantic protests from Perea, Reid slipped the White Pine County land bill through as a rider on the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006.

There was no provision for the pumping impact study requested by the White Pine County Commission.

Senator Bennett’s land bill containing the request for right of way for the pipeline to St. George was left behind in committee.

•••

As gratifying as sucker punching Utah might have been, it only worsened prospects for a quick settlement over Snake Valley water for Las Vegas.

The failure of Bennett’s land bill in Washington proved most excellent tinder to inflame argument back home in Utah over whether St. George should be developed in the first place.

Then, as Reid got the White Pine County land bill passed without the pumping impact study and against the wishes of the White Pine County Commission, an already mad Millard County got madder.

Memory runs deep in the small towns of central Nevada and Utah. Millard County sits just across the Utah state line from White Pine County. Spring Valley was settled by handcart Mormons out of Millard County’s capital of Fillmore. Before Brigham Young lost his empire, White Pine County was Millard County.

The Millard County Commission went directly to the Utah Legislature and demanded that a rancher be appointed to Utah’s negotiating team, which was hammering out how to divide Snake Valley’s water with Nevada.

In February 2007, the state Legislature resolved it should happen.

But the Millard County Commission didn’t want a Utah rancher. It wanted a Nevadan — the rancher’s rancher, Dean Baker.

As it happened, Millard County Commissioner John Cooper knew Baker. The Bakers and Coopers went to school together.

That Cooper is a devoted Mormon and Baker is a gentile didn’t matter. The four wives didn’t matter.

To Cooper’s mind, Baker was born in Millard County, born a Delta boy. They knew his character, his father’s character, his brother’s and his sons’. But nothing in those lifelong associations had impressed them more than the stand that Dean Baker took against Las Vegas.

“No one has more integrity than Dean Baker,” Cooper says. “Dean Baker owns 40,000 acre-feet from that aquifer. Can you imagine how much that would be worth to the Southern Nevada Water Authority? Yet he is unyielding in his right to use that water to ranch.”

Baker’s addition to the Utah team would reunite him with his constant shadow from Mulroy’s press on Spring Valley.

As it happened, the Nevada governor’s special representative to Utah was none other than Las Vegas “water king” Richard Bunker.

Continue to Part 5: ‘Owens Valley is the model of what to expect’

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