Watch Desert Wars September 25, 2006 at 8 pm on KUED Channel 7
Interviewer: Why should the general public care about the park assuming it would be in jeopardy?
Cindy Nielsen: I think the Great Basin has a couple of icons and then the remainder of the attraction and significance of the park has to do with wildlife and visitor experience. Icons would be the bristlecone pines—we have bristlecone pines here that have been dated at almost 5,000 years old. They grow up above 10,000 feet towards the summits of the mountains. We have Mt. Wheeler, which is for hundreds of miles north and south, the tallest peak in the Great Basin as 13,700 feet above sea level. I think Great Basin, as a lot of our national parks, gives visitors a chance for solitude, for quiet, for outdoor recreation. I hope we can hear Leeman Creek here in the background. This is a popular campsite, as is the one on Mt. Wheeler at 10,000 feet, so we have that out-door experience, and that opportunity for solitude.
Interviewer: Tell me about this ground-water project, if it comes to you what would be your concerns in relation to Great Basin?
Cindy Nielsen: Well we've got a couple of concerns. As an umbrella over everything, we're concerned we don't have good and complete science yet on what the facts are going to be and we're in partnership with other federal agencies, with the state of Utah and Nevada, the state water engineers in Nevada as well as our own scientists and those from U.S. Geological Survey to try to get a handle on some important parameters of the water flow system, and we've got lots of different kinds of water and water features that go together that make Great Basin National Park important, especially here in the middle of the desert. We've got wetlands. We've got perennial flowing streams like Leeman Creek and Baker Creek that have native trout and game-fish in them, in the case of Leeman Creek. We have surface springs and the groundwater system itself, which includes caves—Leeman Cave is that other icon in addition to the bristlecone pine of Great Basin National Park. It's a significant part of the visitor experience and the resource here.
Interviewer: Is there a threat to these icons?
The bristlecones at 10,000 feet above sea level would probably be safe certainly from a drought or water because certainly they're going to get the precipitation that the mountains capture as the weather moves from west to east and snow and rain falls on the high peaks. But Leeman Caves and the Springs and the surface reaches of Leeman Creek, Strawberry Creek, Baker Creek, Snake Creek here, on the east side of the southern snake range and located within the park, are all at risk because as you draw down ground-water you create a void of some sort. You've got to re-charge that from a variety of sources. One of the natural recharges of course is for the snow to melt, and rain to run downhill and flow into that ground-water system. But that happens in an unpredictable and uneven way from year to year so as we permanently, or IF we permanently draw down the ground water system at the base of the range in the Snake Valley, we run the risk of losing wells that the ranchers are dependent upon, springs that the wildlife are dependent upon and even concern about Leeman Cave itself, which is an active, dripping, flowing cave with water in it and the lower elevation reaches about where we are, between eight to nine thousand feet. Here at Leeman Creek we can see our streams go sub or get smaller as they became part of that recharge system.
Interview: What are your concerns specifically with Leeman Cave?
Cindy Nielsen: Leeman Cave has been a national monument since 1922. That makes it at least thirty-five to forty years older than the park itself. It was recognized early on as outstanding. And when you think about limestone caves, they're a pretty unusual feature for the Great Basin and the desert. It's part of a limestone karst formation that's cracked and fractured. Water has flowed through there at times in greater levels than it does now, probably at times at smaller levels than it does now. The thing about Leeman Cave is it's big. It's highly decorated with lots of typical cave formations like stalactites, stalagmites, columns, pools of water, and invertibrae life that we haven't even fully studied yet. And then some unusual cave formations like the shield and the parachutes that you'll see when you go into the cave this afternoon. So, it's highly decorated and dynamic. It's not finished yet. The water that flows through the cracks and flows through the cave is an important part of its ongoing formation, and that's a big concern when you start to talk about draw down—loss of water pressure and just a decrease in the amount of water available.
Interviewer: What kind of jeopardy is Leeman Caves in?
Cindy Nielsen: I go back to one thing I seem to return to over and over with this issue and that is, we don't have complete science yet. We don't know what the effects of pumping water down in the Snake Valley and in the lower flanks of the mountain just outside the park is going to have especially on these lower elevation features like Leeman Caves. The worst potential would be that as water is drawn down in the underground aquifer that decreases water-pressure throughout the area and to a certain extent as much as 1000 to 1500 feet above the valley floor. So even above the pump locations, water level could get drawn down. That does two things; there's less water to support these surface streams and creeks to support the water that's seeping and creeping into Leeman Caves and that also means there's less water pressure. We have features in Leeman Cave that are called helectites(?) where water actually spurts out during the springtime when runoff is high and there's a lot of melt water—spurts out sideways. Now I don't know if you'll see those today because we're just having an average spring and we've had about two weeks of that phenomena last month, but that really implies a lot of water pressure as well as just the presence of water. So active cave formations, and to a certain extent sustaining both the geologic features and the invertebrate life in the cave, would both be of concern.
Interviewer: The point some people make is that there are already adequate laws that would actually protect the natural park, what's your opinion?
Cindy Nielsen: The laws and regulations that protect a national park like the Great Basin are in place, no doubt about it. There is really two, perhaps three that are of great importance. One of those is the legislation that established the park itself in 1986. That defines the size of the park. It defines the significant features like bristlecone and wildlife and Leeman Caves and it provides for their protection in perpetuity—forever without impairment. That's the hard part. NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act is the other big piece of legislation, and for some parks, the historic Preservation Act, but here NEPA provides that other piece of legislation and regulation that helps protect these resources. We'll be involved along with the Fish and Wildlife Service, along with other national parks that have the potential to be affected like Lake Mead, Death Valley and perhaps even Zion National Park in western Utah, but certainly with Lake Mead in an environmental impact statement process that looks at this ground water development project proposed by Southern Nevada Water Authority. So that's how we get entrance and put our concerns at the table. The challenge again is win the two billion dollar, hundred-plus mile pipeline is built when that water is sold and provided to the people downstream in Southern Nevada who need it, and even if you have monitoring on your wells and your streams and even in the cave potentially, what do you do when you find there is an affect? How do you mitigate that? How do you make sure that it's unimpaired? That's the challenge, and that's why I think I see the Nevada State Engineer working with our agencies and we're working with SNWA to go slow to try and get as much good science and be able to project into the future what could happen so we don't do irreparable or irretrievable damage. That's the challenge.
Interviewer: So much of this issue seems, especially from the rancher's standpoint, and other interested parties revolves around trust. Do you think you can actually trust the water authorities?
Cindy Nielsen: The issue of trust with South Nevada Water Authority and of course both state engineers in Utah and Nevada will also have an involvement in this portion of the project here on the east side of the snake range in Great Basin National Park and Snake Valley. I think that we're all honorable people trying to do the best for our clientele. My clientele is made up of antelope and sage grass, and Bonneville cutthroat trout, park visitors and cave formations. Those are the interests, if you will--the significant experiences and feature of the park that I have to bring to the table and make sure are protected. You asked me about ranchers. Of course, ranchers and water are inseparable. Water is the limiting factor in ranching and cattle grazing and making hay in the Great Basin. So when your livelihood or your significant resources are at risk, you have to take time and build trust. You have to share information. You have to agree on the science as much as possible. Science is a product of rigorous longitudinal study after-all. But it is done by humans, so there will be differences of opinion. That part of the process is just starting. As we move into the environmental impact statement we'll be working with both technical teams and at the management level with the states and SNWA and our sister agencies in the Department of Interior to make sure that we do this in an open and transparent way that tries to bring benefits to all of our clients.
Interviewer: Tell me about what we're looking at, Leeman Çreek, and the jeopardy with this ground-water project and maybe you could lead it off with this island concept for me.
Cindy Nielsen: We're right along the shores of Leeman Creek. It's one of many perennial mountain streams we've got in Great Basin National Park. It flows year-round. It's small but it's important. But what's really important about it is it's fed by snowmelt and it flows all the way down the mountain to the valley floor. It's part of the Leeman Cave system. There are springs along Leeman Creek, well and springs and there is quite a large one just three miles downstream here. This is all part of a system—you know, there are mountain streams all over the world and throughout the national park system, but Leeman Creek, Strawberry Creek, Snake Creek, and to a certain extent Baker Creek and Millcreek—a lot of streams on this part of the valley—are important because we're in the middle of the desert. Great Basin National Park is really a sky-island surrounded by a sea of grease-wood and sagebrush on the lower slopes of the mountains and the ply is beyond and the valley floor. That makes water features, riparian habitat, springs and streams especially important because of wildlife. Eight percent of all birds that nest in Great Basin National Park, and there are hundreds of different species, nest in these riparian areas that occur only along streams and around springs and to a certain extent, the edges of the wetland areas in the lower elevations of the park. So this idea of a wet, snow-covered, melt-water island in the middle of a huge desert in the case of Great Basin means that this water resource is really important.