Fast-Growing Nevada Town Seeks Neighbor's Water

A water dispute is causing tension between the Southwestern towns of Beaver Dam, Ariz., and Mesquite, Nev. Residents in Beaver Dam are upset over a plan to export the town's remaining water supply across state lines to fuel a development boom in Mesquite.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Two fast-growing states, Arizona and Nevada, are among the hardest hit by an 11-year-long drought. That combination has water planners trying hard to lock up future water supplies.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports on what happens when one town in Nevada wants to lock up its supply from underneath a town in Arizona.

TED ROBBINS: Bob Frisby and I are standing on a small bluff with towering desert mountains at our back and his tiny town below.

Mr. BOB FRISBY (Owner, Beaver Dam Water Company): We're overlooking the Beaver Dam Creek in Beaver Dam, Arizona.

ROBBINS: With several other small towns, Beaver Dam is sandwiched in the northwest corner of Arizona, between Nevada and Utah - combined population, 1,500. It's quiet here. We can see, but not hear someone drilling in their backyard.

Mr. FRISBY: Yes, for $160, you can drill a well in an unregulated area in Arizona.

ROBBINS: Is that what's going on down there just below us on this bluff?

Mr. FRISBY: Yeah. Uh-huh.

(Soundbite of well drilling)

ROBBINS: It's not so quiet 10 miles down the highway, in the 10 times larger town of Mesquite, Nevada. My other guide, John Michael(ph), points out the newest sites.

Mr. JOHN MICHAEL (Executive Director, Wind River Resources): So, here's your Wal-Mart. And over here in front of us is Pulte Homes and another group building 5,000 houses here in this whole section. What do we got here? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight large earthmovers.

ROBBINS: An entire mountainside of beige dirt is literally being carved away in front of our eyes. Mesquite is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. It's in the desert, but it sports bright patches of green golf courses and casinos with blue lakes in front. Like Las Vegas, 90 miles away, Mesquite can't grow without more water. At the current rate of growth, Mesquite officials say they'll be out of water in three to five years.

That's were John Michael comes in. He is executive director of Wind River Resources, a company that bought some land in Northern Arizona near Beaver Dam, applied for one of those $160 water drilling permits and - here's where it gets sticky - applied for permission to take the water out of Arizona.

Mr. MICHAEL: We're going to pump water to Mesquite. We're going to build a pipeline, have all those expenses, and then we will be paid by the city of Mesquite at a rate of $200 per acre-foot, which is very cheap water.

ROBBINS: Now, why would any state, especially in the arid southwest, allow another state to take its water? Because in the mid-1980s, the Supreme Court ruled that water is a commodity, and states can't restrict its trade.

But remember Bob Frisby? He's not just a Beaver Dam landowner, he also owns the Beaver Dam Water Company. He and others argue that the state can and should restrict the water transfer because it will cause irreparable harm. In this case, taking enough water to dry up the Arizona towns. Of course, he has a financial interest here, including some customers who'd like to build their own housing developments.

Mr. FRISBY: We've got every bit as much of a right to develop land here in Arizona as Mesquite does in Mesquite.

ROBBINS: Wind River's John Michael argues Beaver Dam won't be harmed because the water Mesquite wants is from a completely different underground aquifer. Arizona has asked the company to prove that with a test well.

Mr. MICHAEL: Yeah, we'll do the test if you're going to say you're going to give us the permit after we do the test. We're not going to spend two million bucks to have you come up with some reason to say no.

ROBBINS: The state of Arizona is officially staying neutral in this water spat, it's actually up to one man, the head of the state's Department of Water Resources, to grant the interstate water transfer, and he's not talking. But if he turns it down, Wind River is vowing to go to court. The whole mess just makes Larry Johnson, who is just a resident of Beaver Dam, sad.

Mr. LARRY JOHNSON (Resident, Beaver Dam, Arizona): This used to be one singular community even though it consisted of two separate states and two different towns. Now, it's my development versus your development, and this water issue is a major portion of it.

ROBBINS: Left unaddressed is the idea that in the desert, in the face of a drought, either area might consider less development.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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