LAS VEGAS - Decades old exploratory wells drilled as part of the failed MX missile project are being used to monitor ground water in the Southern Nevada Water Authority's plan to tap groundwater in eastern Nevada.
The authority is using data from the old wells as it presses for federal and state permission to build a massive pipeline network into rural areas of Clark, Lincoln and White Pine counties.
In 1979, the U.S. military planned was to hide an arsenal of mobile nuclear missiles in the Nevada desert.
Though the project quickly collapsed, hundreds of exploratory wells were drilled across the region in search of water for the effort.
The SNWA now has teamed with the U.S. Geological Survey and Nevada Division of Water Resources to take periodic measurements
from about 40 MX wells. Some of the holes have been fitted with equipment to monitor them continuously.
Last week's state hearing on the Lincoln County portion of the water project included groundwater readings made possible by the MX project.
So did a 2006 hearing on the authority's plans in White Pine County's Spring Valley.
"I think it's cool. No data goes to waste," said Jeff Johnson, division manager for the authority's surface water resources department.
But many rural residents don't see much difference between nuclear missiles and SNWA pipelines. To them, both look like attempts to exploit their quiet corner of the state.
"There is a strong sense of powerlessness," said Louis Benezet, who lives in the mountains east of Pioche.
On Feb. 8, he spoke out against the water authority's pipeline plan during a public input session held as part of the most recent state hearing on that project.
Benezet's family roots in Lincoln County date back to 1910. He became a full-time resident of the county in 1980, just as early work on the MX project was gearing up.
He said he protested the work back then because it was
"indiscriminately tearing up the fragile desert landscape."
Since then, he and his neighbors have battled against plans for a hazardous waste incinerator in one nearby valley and rail routes in another that one day could carry radioactive cargo to Yucca Mountain.
"There have always been people who have wanted to put things here that other people won't put up with other places," Benezet said.
Steve Bradhurst understands the links between the pipeline and MX missile project as well as anyone.
In 1980, Gov. Robert List appointed him to head up the state office established to assess the MX project.
Bradhurst now serves as executive director of the Central Nevada
Regional Water Authority, a coalition of eight rural counties launched in 2005 to study and protect water resources in those areas.
"It's sort of like we're back to the argument we had in '80 and '81 ... when it looked like rural Nevada was going to be a sacrifice area for the rest of the country," he said.
Now, he said, "it looks like rural Nevada is going to be a sacrifice area for growth and development in southern Nevada.
"It raises the same principal question: Doesn't this area have a right to a future?"
The MX missiles plan was scrapped nine months after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.
But by then, 219 exploratory wells already had been drilled in 26 Nevada watersheds.
The U.S. Geological Survey eventually assumed control of the superfluous MX wells, including an especially large one that has proved important to the water authority.
The hole known as MX-5 is located on the Pahranagat Wash in the Coyote Springs Valley, about 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas. When
the Air Force drilled it to a depth of 626 feet in 1981, it produced what Johnson called "an incredible amount of water," nearly 4,000 gallons a minute.
Then the missile project petered out, and the federal government traded the well and the 42,800 acres surrounding it to defense contractor Aerojet in 1988.
Eight years later, the company sold the still-vacant land to high-powered Nevada lobbyist Harvey Whittemore.
In 1998, he persuaded the water authority to buy the well and about half of his water holdings in the Coyote Springs Valley for $25 million, the same amount he is said to have paid for the entire property.
Today, MX-5 is easy to miss. It's little more than a rust-covered pipe jutting a few feet from the ground just off state Route 168, a few miles east of U.S. Highway 93.
That will change in the coming weeks, though, when work begins on a 16-mile, $21 million pipeline that will allow the authority to use water from MX-5.
The water will be treated at the well site for elevated levels of arsenic and piped east to the distribution system for the Moapa Valley Irrigation District. From there, it will flow into the Muddy River and then into Lake Mead, where the authority will capture it using existing intake pipes.
"We anticipate moving water in late '09, early 2010," Johnson said.
When that occurs, it will mark the first time groundwater from outside the Las Vegas Valley has flowed from local taps.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)