Tiny Town Sticking to Its Water Guns

Times Staff Writer

At first glance, there seems little about this sprawling desert burg to be coveted by neighboring communities.

Its commercial center comprises a small post office, a video store and the Dust Devil pizza joint, with the J&J; general store and Idle Spurs saloon down the road.

There are a few upscale houses, but most of the area's 2,200 residents live in manufactured homes or trailers. Until a recent community cleanup, hundreds of abandoned or junked vehicles littered yards.

But there is one thing Sandy Valley has that is dearly wanted by nearby Primm, a neon-pulsating town on Interstate 15 that's home to three casino hotels and a factory outlet center.

Sandy Valley has underground water.

Out here, beyond the reach of municipal pipelines, water pumped up through domestic wells is treasured more than gold because it sustains life.

And Primm, bustling with commercial life just 20 miles away on the California-Nevada border, needs more to accommodate a developer's plans to build an industrial park, homes for hotel workers, retail expansions and maybe even a theme park. So the developer has hired the Vidler Water Co., a private company that collects and sells water as a commodity, to deliver.

But the tight-fisted residents of Sandy Valley are loath to give up their water and have coalesced like seldom before in this classic Western water fight. What it lacks in scale compared with interstate water battles along the Rio Grande or the Colorado it makes up for in passion among the residents of this rough-and-tumble community.

"This is deadly serious to us. Water is our lifeblood," said Rob Spurlock, a former cattle rancher and well digger who has lived here 45 years, warming himself by his home's pot-bellied stove. "If Vidler comes in, we'll all be sitting on property that's not worth paying our taxes on because we won't have any water left."

And therein lies the heart of the dispute: Does Sandy Valley have water to spare?

Nevada law says no one owns the water; it is a public resource regulated by the state engineer based on competing needs. And the engineer's decision in this case -- to let Vidler take a fraction of the water it sought from Sandy Valley wells -- is headed to court this spring because both sides believe they were given short shrift.

Based on various models and estimates of the amount of water flowing beneath Sandy Valley, the basin can deliver 2,929 acre feet annually, state engineer Hugh Ricci concluded. Of that, 2,514 acre feet is needed for Sandy Valley's current and future needs, he determined.

Vidler initially asked for 2,000 acre feet a year, and then scaled back and asked for 1,400 acre feet. Ricci said Sandy Valley could spare 415 acre feet.

Both sides appealed, and the state is defending its decision in this David-and-Goliath battle.

Vidler is part of Pico Holdings Inc., a La Jolla-based firm that also runs an insurance business and Nevada Land & Resource Co., the state's largest private land owner. Vidler's attorneys and engineers will argue in their appeal that much more water runs under Sandy Valley than Ricci estimated.

They say a deep aquifer courses beneath much of Nevada and that, by some estimates, it holds hundreds of millions of acre feet of water. Vidler claims it has tapped that deeper source in a 1,600-foot-deep "test" well. Most domestic wells here are less than 200 feet deep.

But Ricci said he was not convinced that Vidler found the deeper water, and there are technical arguments that, beneath Sandy Valley, the two aquifers essentially commingle as one.

Sandy Valley residents, on the other hand, argue that their water future is precarious because about half of their underground basin flows into California, where alfalfa and sod farmers are allowed to pump out as much as they want. "We only have enough water if California doesn't over-pump," said Dick Clark, a retired heating and air conditioning contractor who moved here in 1990 from Southern California.

Particularly irksome to residents is that the water will go for commercial enterprise, which is not viewed here as a noble cause. Local folks moved here, after all, to get away from it all, and some are willing to drive 50 miles across two-lane highways and the interstate to hotel and casino jobs in Las Vegas.

To hire lawyers to carry their fight, Sandy Valley residents have staged fund-raising barbecues, a rodeo, bake sales and raffles for cash and rifles, reflecting the spirit of this place.

"We heard [a Vidler executive] say we didn't have any good arguments because half of us couldn't read," said John Bacher, who has rallied opposition to the water company. "Well, they better watch out for the half of us who can read."

Vidler officials say they were braced for opposition. "Water is a very emotional issue," said Steve Hartman, a company vice president. "There is, without question, no greater force than a group of concerned citizens. But we often tend to focus on the emotional issues and stay away from the scientific ones. We're comfortable with the science. We won't harm these folks."

Hartman said Sandy Valley residents are missing a bigger picture: If the basin's excess water is not tapped here, it will continue on its underground journey into California.

"This water is an asset for Nevada. It's generated in Nevada and should be used in Nevada, to stimulate the economy," he said. "If we don't use it, we lose it."

But residents here say the risk to their own futures is too great. "We're just trying to sustain life as we know it," said Beth Bacher, "while Primm just wants to expand. We resent that."

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