The Bench Warmer and the Straggler

Gubernatorial candidates have been playing the usual political game. One of them lost a long time ago.

In Longshot, Johnson laments the way he worded his Basha ads. But observers figured Johnson, trailing badly against Hull, would try something similar. At an October 4 televised debate, Johnson proved them right.

In September, Governor Hull experienced a minor bump in her smooth ride to Election Day.

The Mesa Tribune reported that Hull had taken $3,000 from gaming interests at a July 15 Las Vegas fund raiser. Sensing an opportunity to derail Hull, Johnson criticized her for taking the gaming money (she says publicly that she's morally opposed to gambling). Johnson says an angry Phil Dion, CEO of Del Webb Corporation and chairman of Hull's finance committee, called Johnson and told him to stop harping on the story.

Johnson contends Dion told him the fund raiser, which actually raised more than $31,000 and which Dion himself had set up, wasn't about the few gaming people there, who happened to be Dion's personal friends. "He told me the fund raiser was about Las Vegas developers and their need for water," Johnson says.

Dion deferred questions about the call to a spokesman, who says the Del Webb CEO doesn't want to talk about it.

Dion followed up with a letter to Johnson that included a list of the contributors at the fund raiser. It was that information Johnson used to attack Hull at an October 4 public television debate.

Johnson criticized Hull for accepting money from developers in Las Vegas, an area desperate for more water, just as "staff discussions" between the two states over water were occurring.

But reporters hounded Johnson for more detail: Was he suggesting that Hull had negotiated some sort of backroom deal as a quid pro quo for the $31,000? Where was his proof? How could he slam Hull for taking money from out-of-state interests when every governor does it?

As the pressure on Johnson mounted, he made a major misstep. He claimed that Del Webb owned a 4,700-acre parcel south of Las Vegas that the company couldn't build on without Arizona water. Reporters quickly found that wasn't true. In fact, construction was already proceeding on the development.

A check of Nevada state land records, however, shows that, while Del Webb's Henderson project may not have been held up by a lack of water, other developments are--including some owned by people who wrote checks to Hull at her Nevada fund raiser.

For the past decade, southern Nevada officials have been concerned that the area's spectacular growth would use up the state's allocation of Colorado River water, and have looked for ways to supplement it. In 1996, to protect its unused share of river water, which both California and Nevada had been taking, Arizona began pumping that water into underground aquifers. By now, the arcane intricacies of "water banking," a subject maybe a dozen water-policy nerds knew anything about before last month, has been debated ad nauseam, with Hull's camp arguing that she has little to do with it. In drought years or in future times when development forces the state to use up its allocation, Arizona can get back its banked water--make a withdrawal, as it were--by drawing it straight from the Colorado River in credit for what it had pumped into the ground earlier.

Nevada, meanwhile, is hoping that Arizona will see fit to bank some of that surplus water for Nevada (at Nevada's expense), so the parched northern neighbor can withdraw a similar amount straight from the river. But that sort of interstate transaction can't happen without federal approval. The feds--specifically the Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt--oversee the "Law of the River," and will decide soon if water banking between states can happen.

In the meantime, Nevada officials have proceeded on two fronts as the state's water supply has diminished. First, they've been making nice with Arizona officials, hoping that after the feds give the green light to water banking, Arizona commissions staffed with Hull appointees will also agree to it.

Southern Nevada officials also have taken fairly draconian measures to keep from giving up too much of the state's dwindling water supply too soon.

They've done so by making developers take risks that Arizona developers don't face: Nevada land barons know that acreage they purchase may never have water, according to the rules of southern Nevada water districts amended seven years ago in response to concern about water shortages, says George Jacobi, Engineering Services Division Manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

Landowners can get water commitments for commercial properties, for example, after infrastructure, buildings and occupancy licenses have already been put in place. So a developer can potentially invest millions of dollars and be ready for a tenant to move and still not have a guarantee from the water district for a single drop of water.

That's a mighty risk, and one developers would rather not face. As long as Nevada has only eight more years of firm supplies, however, those rules will likely stay in place.

Any developer with vacant land in southern Nevada has no guarantee that his land will ever get water. Take Boyd Gaming, for example, the company that owns the Stardust Hotel. A check of Clark County records shows that Boyd also owns dozens of vacant parcels of land--none of which, according to water district rules, has a commitment for water.

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