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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We go to Las Vegas now and the sights and sounds that define that city.

(Soundbite of slot machines)

MONTAGNE: Slot machines, of course, and legendary shows...

Unidentified Announcer: And now, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Warmth himself, Don Rickles.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: But for many, this is now the signature sound of Las Vegas.

(Soundbite of water flowing)

MONTAGNE: Water. It's a scarce commodity in a desert city filled with golf courses, fountains and artificial lakes. Drought and growth have thirsty Las Vegas desperately seeking more water. This week, we're looking at this precious resource in the desert Southwest.

Today, NPR's Howard Berkes has a story on the water fight between urban Las Vegas and rural ranchers to the north.

HOWARD BERKES: Water is so critical to life in the high desert valleys north of Las Vegas that it even came up at a high school graduation last month.

(Soundbite of music)

BERKES: The five graduates of Eskdale High School strode at the stage in caps and gowns. And the grandmother of one graduate reflected on her grandson's accomplishment with worried tears. Denise Coyle(ph) is afraid that Las Vegas will drain this rural region's water for its thirsty urban needs.

Ms. DENISE COYLE (Resident, Eskdale, Utah): On any given day you can get anybody out here to cry.

BERKES: About water?

Ms. COYLE: About water, about their children, about their future.

BERKES: Coyle owns a combination gas station, motel, restaurant and casino midway along a 12-mile stretch of brown desert and green fields, between Eskdale, Utah and Baker, Nevada. Water, she says, is key to keeping her grandson home and working in the family business.

Ms. COYLE: Because of all my grandchildren, he is the one most interested in the business. And this water thing all ties back to him and his future. It's very simple. Without water, even decreased water, the future is going to go away.

(Soundbite of flowing water)

BERKES: This is some of the water Coyle worries about, a steady spring, crystal clear and shimmering in morning light. It flows right out of the ground, framed by lush grass and willowed thickets. Wherever this water goes, meadows sprout, cattle graze, and hayfields grow. Rancher Dean Baker admires what water does here.

Mr. DEAN BAKER (Rancher): Well, the reason there is ranching in this valley is because there's water from these springs. You shut this water off, it certainly will reduce the ranching and the productivity of this valley, both for livestock and wildlife and other things. It will become a dry desert valley.

BERKES: That's what Baker fears if Las Vegas gets its way with an astounding proposal, capping 6,000 square miles of underground aquifers, an area that could swallow Connecticut, spending more than $2 billion on a pipeline 300 miles long, pumping 65 billion gallons of rural water a year for 50,000 urban families. This has been Patricia Mulroy's project for more than 15 years. Mulroy's the Las Vegas Valley's water czar. And she succinctly justified the plan back in 1991.

Ms. PATRICIA MULROY (Southern Nevada Water Authority): There isn't enough water to go around. And we're the most arid spot in the United States.

BERKES: Mulroy faced phenomenal urban growth back then with few new sources of water. Casinos were booming. Gambling mogul Steve Wynn considered that in a 1991 interview.

Mr. STEVE WYNN (Casino Resort Developer): Las Vegas owes its existence to the fact that it is not absolutely a necessary thing. This isn't like a farmer who grows wheat so that we can eat. That's necessary. Going on vacation is not necessary. But to the people who live and who have families and children, to the state, this is necessary, because otherwise we all have to go someplace else.

BERKES: The Las Vegas Valley was the fastest growing region in the country back then and it's still booming. In 16 years the population has nearly doubled to a million and a half people. Close to 40 million will visit this year. So booming urban Las Vegas has long lusted after unused water, flowing beneath rural desert valleys to the north.

Mr. CECIL GARLAND (Rancher): What Las Vegas has got to learn is that there are limits to its growth - or gluttony, gambling, glitter and girls are what's it's all about.

BERKES: Eighty-one-year-old Cecil Garland raises hay and cattle in Callao, Utah, population 35.

Mr. GARLAND: What's it's all about here is children, cattle, country and church. Seems to me there's a categorical opposition to the whole basic philosophy of life. Would it be crops or craps that we use our water for?

(Soundbite of machine)

BERKES: Outside, Garland answers his own question by revving up a swatter, a tractor-like machine with spinning blades for cutting hay. He steers it into a bright green field of alfalfa. Garland and Callao are a long way from Las Vegas, about 300 miles. They're 50 miles from the nearest paved road and 90 miles to gas and groceries. But the aquifer beneath Callao connects to aquifers in a string of rural valleys along the Utah-Nevada border. Pumping water from them might drain wells and springs all over the region. Allan Biaggi directs Nevada's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Mr. ALLAN BIAGGI (Department of Conservation and Natural Resources): A surface water like a river or a stream, you can see it, you can measure it quite easily, you know where it's going. This is all underground. It's unseen and there's a lot of uncertainty. We really don't know what's going to happen here until we do some pumping and see how this natural system reacts to that pumping.

BERKES: And that's precisely what the Nevada state engineer has decided. He determines whether Las Vegas gets the water it wants. And so far he's awarded a fifth of what the city is seeking. But only for 10 years and with close monitoring. He could limit pumping if wells and springs are affected, if less water flows for wildlife, farmers and ranchers. Still, some fret about the future of tiny classes of high school graduates.

(Soundbite of choir singing)

BERKES: Near the Utah-Nevada border last month, the Eskdale High School choir sang just before five diplomas were awarded. The parents of these students worry that once the billion dollar pipeline is built and the water starts flowing to Las Vegas, there'll be no stopping it, even if they're harmed.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

(Soundbite of choir singing)

MONTAGNE: You can read more about the series and track the proposed Las Vegas pipeline at npr.org. Tomorrow, the view from Las Vegas and its powerful water czar, Patricia Mulroy.

Ms. MULROY: There is that North/South acrimony in Nevada and it has nothing to do with water. There's a cultural gap. There's a rural/urban gap. And overcoming those is probably the most daunting part of this job.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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