Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Platinum Standard

A new article in the Los Angeles Times details Harry Reid’s shameful involvement with lobbyist Harvey Whittemore’s Coyote Springs development, which will turn 67 square miles of Nevada desert into a planned community featuring sixteen golf courses. (Reno, which comprises roughly 110 square miles, has only eleven.)

The article describes the systematic, quasi-legal process by which obstacles to development were overcome. The most interesting of these obstacles was the need to protect the area’s “aquatic resources,” which was strongly affirmed by the regional EPA office.


Privately, some regional EPA officials said they knew their superiors in Washington would not support a hard line on aquatic resources.

The regional officials not only withdrew their objections, but in April 2006 they also gave Whittemore's project an award for "environmentally sensitive improvements" in its plans.
What’s really noteworthy here – though the LA Times doesn’t mention it - is Whittemore’s involvement with Vidler Water Co., a water brokerage firm owned by Pico Holdings, Inc:
As Pico CEO John Hart helpfully explains on the company’s website, water—far from a human right—is, rather, an “undervalued asset” with “the potential for long-term superior rates of return.” In other words, to Pico, water isn’t a scarce resource that must be carefully managed in the public interest, but a commodity to be speculated on and sold for the highest possible profit.
Vidler is a huge player in the water-privatization movement, and the water it buys up has a habit of making its way to desert golf courses. (Sad to say, Marc Reisner, whose fine book Cadillac Desert remains the best introduction to Western water politics, was actually Vidler’s director at the time of his death in 2000.)

Whittemore is quick to point out that while he may be bad, other developers are worse:
"The final product is the most environmentally friendly development ever proposed in Nevada," Whittemore said. "I want people to understand that I am the platinum standard."
Faint praise indeed. And also somewhat beside the point. At least one expert believes there’s simply not enough water for Coyote Springs:
A National Park Service hydrologist testified Thursday that the flow of water into springs that feed Lake Mead would decrease if the state approved groundwater in Lincoln County for the Coyote Springs golf community.

"There is no water available for appropriation (to Coyote Springs)," hydrologist William Van Liew testified during the final day of a three-day hearing before state Division of Water Resources staff members.
Of course, to developers and those who love them, Van Liew is worse than wrong: he's a pessimist. Just as rain followed the plow, it will follow the golf cart.

Whittemore claims that Coyote Springs is vital to the economy of Lincoln County. But since the county is currently home to only 4,500 people, and it's unclear how the region will adapt to a dramatic increase in traffic to and from Las Vegas, this isn’t a very compelling argument. His green rhetoric, clearly, is a far better stick with which to beat naysayers (never mind that the concept of “environmentally sensitive” leapfrog development is an oxymoron, especially in the desert west).

In the 19th century, growth advocates claimed that development would change the Southwestern climate and make the deserts bloom. Whittemore, by contrast, boasts that he’ll make the deserts bloom without changing the climate. This isn’t progress, needless to say; it’s age-old expansionist confabulation, adapted to suit modern trends in credulity.

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