Watch Desert Wars September 25, 2006 at 8 pm on KUED Channel 7
Interviewer: Ed what do you think is wrong with Las Vegas taking what they perceive as surplus water from Snake Valley?
Ed Firmage: The problem with Las Vegas' so-called water grab is that it represents the continuation of the way we've used water in the West, which is a very wasteful approach to the use of water. And it represents a continuation of the attitude that everything has to be basically subordinated as our needs as humans. What happens to the environment, what happens to natural communities that depend on that water is basically not even under discussion in a lot of circles.
Interviewer: What would the affect be on the environment out there? What do you think would happen?
Ed Firmage: I think the likelihood is that there would be damage and we don't know exactly how much because in part we don't really know what's going on underneath the surface, but some estimates have suggested that the water table might be drawn down as much as 100 feet and that would put it beyond the reach of even the deepest of desert plants like the salt cedar or the tamarisk. So the likely consequence is going to be what we've seen elsewhere in areas like Owens Valley where you basically turn a fertile area into a desert. The other consequences include damage to wildlife areas such as Fish Springs, which is bordering the Snake Valley, and is a beautiful wetland area and a vital area for bird life. And there are similar springs on the other side of the border in Nevada. This, of course isn't just an issue for Snake Valley, this is an issue for the whole area and the consequences for these wildlife areas and for these springs in particular could be disastrous.
Interviewer: Does this set a precedent that would not be good for wild places in the West?
Ed Firmage: We have so little wild space left and the area in question is still largely wild, although there is ranching in the bottom areas, it's still a very primitive area and I think that those areas that remain that are so few and far between need to be protected for their own sake as well as for ours. We need those places to retreat to and enjoy and the animals and plants that live there have no place else to go.
Interviewer: Talk a little bit about the appropriateness of cities in the West like
Ed Firmage: You know back in the early days in the settlement of the West,
Interviewer: Should cities like Las Vegas have ever been built in the first place with such and arid environment so far away from water?
Ed Firmage: I don't think Las Vegas should ever have been built, apart from the sort of way station that it once was. It's an absurdity to imagine a city of that size or a city the size of Phoenix in the driest part of the United States. On the face of it, it's an absurdity.
Interviewer: Why should we care about this issue?
Ed Firmage: The issue at hand is not simply about a handful of ranchers wanting to preserve their way of life against a much larger arguably needy population in Las Vegas. What we're really dealing with here is the question of what sort of West we will have in the future. Is it a West of continuing, unlimited cancerous growth or is it a West that will recognize limits and be willing to impose on itself those limits before nature does in a more catastrophic way? We're not just talking about people we're also talking about habitat for wildlife. We're talking about plants. We're talking about a very fragile ecosystem that has a right to be independent of us and the notion that we can simply go in and steal things that are critical for the survival of that ecosystem because a big urban city wants to, I think, is an unsupportable way of life.
Interviewer: One of the opinions from the Nevada side is that millions may benefit from this water as opposed to a very few in terms of the ranchers and their agricultural interests. What's wrong with that?
Ed Firmage: The Las Vegas argument which pits the interests of many against the few is I think specious in that we're talking not principally about a handful of ranchers, we're talking about the effect of this water grab on an entire region. Independent of the hundreds and thousands of people that will be affected by this, the effect on wildlife, on native springs, on ground water, on local vegetation are potentially catastrophic. There are any number of unforeseen consequences to doing that. With the possibility that the increased desertification of this area could create horrendous dust storms, it could cast up toxic dust, even radioactive dust into the air affecting many more people than would be directly affected by just the loss of the water. But the most important argument against this scheme, is simply one of responsibility. Is it environmentally responsible and is it even fiscally responsible to spend billions of dollars piping water for a city, which is already past any reasonable size for it's location, and at what point do we say enough is enough? This case is interesting in that it united two groups that are often on opposite ends of environmental debate: ranchers and environmentalists. The common concern of both is that a big metropolitan area is going to steal water that will not only hurt a few ranchers but hurt an entire region. And that is the concern that brings environmentalists to the table as well as the ranchers. Speaking for myself I have to admit that I have real concerns about ranching in the West. It's called welfare ranching and rightly because it wouldn't exist without massive government subsidy, in this case in the form of water, and subsidy in the form of land leases and other things that we give ranchers to make ranching in this very marginal area possible. But on this issue I side with ranchers because I think the greater danger is the ongoing practice of engineering water in ways that are way beyond natural.
John Howe: What do you see for the future of the growth of these cities as they continue to get more population and boom. Where will these resources come from? I'm talking about thinks like desalination and other things for the future.
Ed Firmage: I think we're reaching a point where we have to decide fundamentally… let's start with just the human question. What kind of environment do we want to live in? One of the things that draws people to the West is its clear sky. Yet when you go to Las Vegas today you see this perpetual haze like the haze that hangs over Los Angeles. You're beginning to see it now in St. George. You see it every day in the Grand Canyon as pollution from Las Vegas and Los Angeles and other areas drifts into the Grand Canyon. The question is really what kind of life do we want to live here? Is it a replication of urban New York? Is it recreating little Los Angeles all over the West? I don't think so. And that means we have to impose limits on ourselves and one great and natural ordinary way to do that would be to let real natural resources—the resources that are locally available—determine the size of settlements that will exist there. No more settlement should exist in the Las Vegas area than local resources can support. And no more settlements should occur in St. George that their local resources can support and so on down the line.
Interviewer: Can you speak to the trust and fears of the ranchers that they really can't trust the water authority in Vegas? One of the points they make is there are already adequate regulations in place that would protect the ranchers.
Ed Firmage: I'm very skeptical of Las Vegas' claim that the ranchers have nothing to fear. With the money and effort that is going to build this project, it seems highly improbable that once it is built, any significant veto power would rest in the hands of a handful of ranchers, and no veto power that I can see is going to be vested in the birds of Fish Springs. So, you know, who really effectively is going to speak here? It's going to be the people with influence and political poll and money, and that's Las Vegas. So if we go down this road I think the natural tendency will be to be more, not less destructive.
Interviewer: What would your advice to the ranchers be?
Ed Firmage: Fight like hell! This is an issue worth fighting. I think it could be a precedent-setting issue where people at state and local levels—environmentalists, ranchers--put some sort of break on growth or insist that future growth come through conservation. But even though the odds are stacked against the little guys in this case, I look to the MX battle as an interesting precedent where state and local governments and most money interests were completely for building the missile system here in the Great Basin and yet it ended up being defeated because of local opposition. And I hope the same thing will occur here again.
Interviewer: You were talking a little bit earlier about St. George as sort of a microcosm of what's happening in these bigger cities. What do you think is going to happen in the future to St. George?
Ed Firmage: I'm very concerned about St. George. It's an area that I have known since I was a kid. My ancestors in this state go back to the very beginning. My great, great, great, grand father is Brigham Young. So I bring to this a love for this area and what I see happening right now throughout Washington County is again more of this continuation of the status quo--growth for growth sake, seemingly without end. Heedless of the wise caution that Ed Abby was famous for saying that "the growth for growth sake is the ideology of the cancer cell" and that is so true. What I see happening in St. George is basically cancerous growth. Every time I drive into town, for example, and I see that big scar on the mountain above town where they basically dug out a piece of the mountain to accommodate homes and condominiums, I just get this wrenching in my gut. And as I see more and more desert land turned into high-density housing, I just want to cry. This is growth without any sense of consequence or responsibility. Since becoming a photographer seven years ago, I've come to a totally new appreciation of this land. I grew up here, my family has been here for many generations, and yet like a lot of people who live here, I never really connected to the land. I was an urban person—my thinking, my ideas, my orientation were urban. I could just have easily been in London or Paris and probably would have preferred to be in London or Paris. Approaching the land as a photographer and looking at it in that sense as a lover, as an admirer and protector, I have the deepest concerns about where we're heading as a state and as a region because I see so little of that attitude of responsibility and protecting and caring and loving as opposed to simply viewing the land as a resource to be exploited for the sake of profit. And in the case of Las Vegas, there is nothing else but profit. We're talking about a town that is synonymous with simply making money for no purpose than making money, and for that we are willing to sacrifice these last few precious, wonderful areas that all of us need as a form of spiritual retreat and which the animals and plants that live there need as a place to survive and live.