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George Knapp: Hero of the desert

In the dank, dark, hole-in-the-wall watering holes where environmental dudes gather to weave their schemes for world domination, the stories are passed from person to person, generation to generation. The darkest of these tales, told in guarded whispers, recall long-ago deeds by the boldest eco-warriors, epic tales worthy of a Tolkien-like poem — that is, assuming you can buy the idea that a biologist can be as heroic as, say, an Aragorn or a Baggins.

No one will ever confuse Dr. Jim Deacon with a mythological hero like Conan or Lancelot, because Deacon isn’t one to smite evildoers with a mighty blade or cut the heads off of a slithering Nazgul. But the stories are every bit as heroic, though it’s unlikely they will ever be written down.

Last week, Deacon was honored by fellow environmentalists for a lifetime of waging ferocious battles against powerful, nearly insurmountable foes. The Center for Biological Diversity bestowed upon the beleaguered ecologist its E.O. Wilson Award for Outstanding Science in Biodiversity Conservation. That may not pack much pizzazz when it is recounted around a campfire or in a man-cave gathering of fellow soldiers, but the unwritten tales that justify the honor really are heroic in stature.

I remember hearing about Deacon’s deeds many years ago when I first wandered into the ongoing water wars. For reasons of legality and confidentiality, I’ll have to leave out certain details. Suffice to say, some steps were taken to make sure that several rare species of desert fish would not be wiped out because of careless decisions made by water honchos. As the story goes, young Dr. Deacon took decisive action that, um, may nor may not have been fully compliant with environmental laws of the time. As a result, several species of fish that had survived for millions of years in isolated pools did not join the list of animals and plants that have been rendered extinct because of the greed, environmental recklessness and poor planning that has so often characterized Nevada’s public water barons. I’d like to tell you more about exactly what he did, but it wouldn’t do much good for either Deacon or the fish, so we will leave the details for a day far in the future.

As noted last week by fellow ecologist Rob Mrowka, who presented the award, Jim Deacon has spent more than 50 years of his life in an effort to learn about and preserve aquatic species and their fragile environments. Deacon founded the department of environmental studies at UNLV, wrote more than 90 scientific articles about the ecology of desert fish and has been the standard-bearer for environmental consciousness in our state, a cause that almost always takes a backseat to growth and progress, the code words used by public figures to justify environmental devastation and ever-higher profits. If the proponents of unchecked sprawl and relentless growth were dumb enough to anoint a Public Enemy No. 1, chances are it would be Deacon’s likeness on the wanted poster.

Mrowka reminded me a few days ago that, in all likelihood, Deacon was the first guy to use the term “water grab” to describe the long-range plans of Las Vegas water bosses to suck the life out of a vast swath of rural Nevada by siphoning away billions of gallons of groundwater. Because of pressure from Deacon and his colleagues, it’s no longer acceptable for the water czars to admit that they want the rural water to facilitate more and more ridiculous growth, so they adjusted their line of bullshit to say the proposal is all about water security for Las Vegas. Vast sums of public money have been spent to create a rich tapestry of PR bullshit surrounding the water grab, a phrase that still perfectly encapsulates what the plan would do.

In a 1994 article in The New York Times, Deacon warned that the “water grab” would wipe out dozens of the rarest plants and animals on Earth. Several scientific studies have confirmed his worst fears, including studies conducted by the same agencies that are still pushing for the grab, though they have promised the damage could be minimized with proper planning. Deacon also warned back then that the plan would be prohibitively expensive, with a 1994 price tag of up to $5 billion. Water agencies have now grudgingly admitted that the actual cost will be $15 billion, an outrageous sum even in healthy economic times but a figure that is now so utterly ridiculous in light of current fiscal challenges that surely even the most committed of the water-grab warriors has to know it can’t be allowed to happen.

And yet, here we are. Deacon and other environmentalists weren’t happy to see the economy crash, but they hoped for a silver lining. They prayed that the economic calamity would give us a pause to perhaps rethink the wisdom of unchecked, nonsensical growth. From the looks of things, the folks who have always championed the water grab spent all of about five minutes rethinking their strategy. They are once again committing huge sums of public money to pursue the most massive public-works project in Nevada history, a network of pumps and pipelines across a 400-mile stretch of the rural West — already one of the driest regions in the country, even before the persistent drought. Here, at the end of 2012, our water agencies continue to pretend the public will have a say in whether the water grab moves forward, but every day they add to the $100 million that’s already been spent on this folly, paying for more lawyers, more consultants, more PR spinmeisters, more overpriced ranch land.

At long last, though, the message of Jim Deacon and his colleagues is finally being heard, not because there is suddenly an outpouring of public love for desert fish, but because the financial costs are finally coming to the fore. In 2012, the Las Vegas business community got its first real taste of what is to come when surcharges needed to pay for other questionable water infrastructure sent water bills through the roof and threatened to close dozens of small companies. The explosion of outrage temporarily subsided when water honchos pulled the oldest trick in the book by calling for a community-wide “study” of water rates, but it’s a charade. The money has already been spent. One way or another, residents of the valley will have to fork over piles of money to pay the tab. And this tab is but a small fraction of the bill to come. If business and residential customers think this round of rate hikes is tough to bear, wait until the full bill for the much larger, much more expensive pipeline project comes.

I don’t know if Jim Deacon will still be around when the water-grab folly finally has a stake driven through its cold, dark heart, but he can take comfort in knowing that he, more than any other single person, laid the groundwork for its death knell. Deacon would probably prefer to know that the public finally wised up to the environmental consequences of the water wars, but if, in the end, the project dies because of inflated cost estimates, that would be fine with him. Even better would be if the pipeline plan is killed in court, thanks to the presence in certain desert pools of some tiny fish that would have died out long ago if not for their champion, Dr. Deacon.

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at knapp@klastv.com