Virgin Valley Water District Wants Unlimited and Unfettered Access to Water

Gold Butte National Monument is under threat from the Trump Administration because they want more mineral extraction (mostly gas and oil) at the expense of the landscape and the Outdoor Recreation Industry. Wildcatters looked for oil in Gold Butte in the 1980s and found none, and what the old-time prospectors used to say remains true today: you can find anything you look for in Gold Butte, but not in economical quantities (except maybe ecotourism and the outdoor industry, but that is a different topic).


This site was a dry hole: no oil here

Prospectors found all kinds of minerals. Most famously they found gold, but they also mined silver, lead, copper, uranium, manganese, mica, vermiculite, and other minerals. As we see today, however, most of the mines played out years ago. Gold was essentially done by 1910, copper died in 1918 except for a spurt in the 1950s, and uranium was done in 1980s. One gold mine operated during the 1940s and another in the 1990s, but those weren’t commercially viable either.


Gold Butte Mine

Prospectors also found and claimed water, perhaps the most valuable extractable resource in the desert. They captured surface flows and mined subsurface water. But just like the other extractable resources in Gold Butte, water seems not to be available in commercial quantities. In fact, most springs have gone dry in recent decades, and all of the wells and windmills are dry or gone.


Ruby Spring — barely damp enough to attract flies and a few honey bees


Garden Spring Windmill — dry for decades


Windmill Mine — but no windmill and no water


This washed out earthen dam used to hold back the outflow from the marsh at St. Thomas Gap

This land has been drying out since the end of the last Ice Age, but people keep trying to catch and store water with hopes of the “good old days” coming back. Perhaps the best example is the exquisite stone dam at Whitney Pocket. But the history of this dam is the history of Gold Butte: the land continues to dry out, the people continue to hold out hope, and the land just keeps on drying out.


Stone dam built at Whitney Pocket by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s

A few springs (e.g., Red Bluff Spring, Horse Spring, Agua Chiquita Spring) remain in central and southern Gold Butte, but they don’t produce much water. Similarly, there are a few springs in northern Gold Butte (e.g., Cabin Spring, Dud Spring, Government Spring) that produce a little water, and one still creates a small stream in wet years.


Cabin Canyon on the north side of Virgin Peak: after an extremely wet winter, water flows in the creek

As they used to say in the Old West, or perhaps still do, whisky is for drinking — water is for fighting. Gold Butte National Monument is under threat from the Trump Administration because they want more mineral extraction: but what they really want now is water. The issue of water rights was settled in the National Monument Proclamation where it says, in plain-and-simple black-and-white text: all existing water rights remain the same before and after the designation of Gold Butte National Monument:

The establishment of the monument is subject to 
valid existing rights, including valid existing water rights.

It is disappointing to learn that the Virgin Valley Water District (VVWD) is reneging on agreements and compromises made during the long process of drawing a boundary around Gold Butte National Monument, compromises that cut the northern 50,000 acres out of the original national monument proposal. The VVWD, the Governor, and the conservation community all agreed on the boundary and the language specifying for all time that VVWD has access to their lawful water rights —  access that never has been denied.

Despite the agreements and the text in the monument proclamation, the VVWD now appears angry that they can’t have unlimited and unfettered access to the several springs in question, arguing, in effect, that they should be able to put a 4-lane highway into the mountains and up to the springs should they desire.

Well, I hate to tell them, but monument or not, the VVWD will never have unlimited and unfettered access to these springs because these are on public lands, not VVWD private property, and We the People of America have a say in how our lands are managed and how the VVWD can access its water rights. I suspect that We the People will insist on minimal damage to our landscape inside and outside the monument.

Furthermore, VVWD seems to argue that access to these few springs is essential to the survival of Mesquite. Well, they should find no solace in the fact that most springs in the Gold Butte region have gone dry in the last few decades. Hanging their hopes on their few remaining springs will be disappointing.


Dry reservoir below the dry Grapevine Spring


Eclipse August 21, 2017

Eclipse. The earth and moon spin in their eternal orbits around each other and around the sun, always throwing shadows off into space. Sometimes the shadows cross paths with one or the other celestial body, and today the moon travelled directly between the sun and earth as seen from North America.

The zone of totality crossed far north of Las Vegas, but Liz and I headed north last night to Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge and camped at Upper Lake Campground. We were only a bit more than an hour north of town, but after a relaxing morning watching the few early-migrating birds (Yellow Warblers, House Wren, Western Grebes), we settled in to watch the eclipse. Direct evidence of planet-sized events is inspiring.

Stormy weather enveloped Las Vegas and all points south of us, but we were right on the edge of the storm system, so we got to see most of the eclipse. Early on, we were under clear skies, but as the eclipse progressed, we got more and more heavy clouds. We could see rain just south of us.

Being so far south, I was surprised that we had such a narrow sliver of sun during the height of the eclipse. We made a pin-hole viewer but mostly used our solar glasses (purchased for the last eclipse) and even shot a few photos through the glasses. As the clouds moved in, we were able to look directly at the sun and take photos without the filter.


Progression of the solar eclipse as seen from Pahranagat NWR