The last time that I saw Dean Baker as a well man, it was 2008. His frantic pacing in the back of a hearing room in the Nevada State Legislature in Carson stopped as he suddenly fled to the hallway and struggled to throw open what turned out to be a permanently sealed window. I wondered if he might not rip it from the frame.
Nothing about the capitol’s groomed statehouse or its setting in the piney Sierra suited this desert rancher. Baker’s home next to his cattle and alfalfa operation was so far east in Nevada’s sagebrush ocean that most of his neighbors lived in Utah. Baker’s flights to Carson for hearings had become a familiar pilgrimage over Nevada’s cordillera, part of a now nearly 30-year battle against the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which in 1989 revealed plans to siphon billions of gallons of Great Basin groundwater and pump it as much as three hundred miles south to Las Vegas.
The struggle has defined not only the man who became the face of the opposition to Las Vegas, but the communities of the Highway 50 towns that stood with him, including Ely, Garrison, Eskdale, Ibapah, Fillmore and Delta.
It almost wasn’t a fight as ranches around Baker began selling to Vegas in 2006, the owners tearfully arguing that they had no choice. If there’s something more admired about Baker than his weed-free alfalfa it has to be his refusal over the years to accept Vegas offers for his ranch and water said to have started at $20 million.
“Where would I go?” he asked me one evening as we sat on his porch in 2007, me prying about his past for a water series for the Las Vegas Sun and him listening to an owl hooting as rabbits edged from the sagebrush. Dean got so famous as the Vegas saga played out over the years that he couldn’t keep the reporters straight. Correspondents from every major paper in America, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor and Los Angeles Times, climbed into his Cessna to be alternately sickened and thrilled by his crop duster’s plunges over sagebrush, sand and the sudden snaking creek of turquoise water fed by Big Springs.
Baker and fellow protestors lost many battles in their long fight with Vegas. It wasn’t “Chinatown.” It was worse. It was real and it was Nevada. The state engineer who weighs up the soundness of water claims is a political appointee and the politics favored Vegas. Yet, time after time, Baker and a protest movement that became known as the Great Basin Water Network won where it mattered — in court. A key victory came late 2013, when a Nevada Central District court ruled that the estimates of sustainable yields and mitigation plans were “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered the SNWA and state engineer to conduct new hearings.
Vegas may yet prevail at these. Unable these almost 30 years to win legally, a relatively new SNWA general manager has come up with an ingenious twist. Tomorrow the Southern Nevada Water Authority goes before a state senate committee hearing backing a bill that seeks to redefine sustainable yield and adequate monitoring standards — retroactively, no less. If it passes before the legislature recesses in June, then what Vegas will be proposing by way of pumping and monitoring when it goes back before the state engineer next autumn will no longer be illegal.
Dean Baker will not be pacing the back of the room tomorrow. He died two days ago.
But the shadow of his schoolbus-yellow Cessna may well be tracking over Baker Ranch. Baker’s family and neighbors are carrying on the fight. The Snake Valley Festival will be held next to Baker Ranch in June. All proceed go to the court battle that Dean Baker made possible by preferring the sound of a hooting owl at night to twenty million dollars.
Resources: Quenching Las Vegas’s Thirst, Las Vegas Sun