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).
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.
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.
Windmill Mine — but no windmill and no water
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.
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.
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.