Outside magazine, May 1994
This could turn Nevada into a Garden of Eden," a spectacled, overweight man said in a Droopy Dog monotone as he pointed to a projector screen glowing with hydrology data. The setting was the first Nevada Water Summit, a conclave of hydro-wonks assembled last fall in Las Vegas to ponder the intractable state and regional shortage. The speaker (and main event) was Wally Spencer, a 64-year-old rocket scientist turned high-tech dowser who for the past three years has pestered bureaucrats with claims that he's found the cure: a huge, previously undetected subterranean river that, in his reckoning, has a flow rate one and a half times greater than the mighty Colorado. Given his audience--water experts, developers, ranchers--the reactions were predictable: slack jaws, nervous titters, and wet lips. In an outlandish vision that's difficult to ignore in America's driest state, Spencer says his river originates in British Columbia and gurgles south at unreachable depths until it hits Nevada, where it passes just a few hundred feet beneath the desert floor on its way to the Pacific.
In Spencer's imagined utopia, what he has proudly dubbed Spencer River would be tapped for use in Nevada, with more than enough left over to permanently swell the Colorado, increasing the share for every other state that pipettes the region's most important river: Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and California. "This would change the landscape of the entire Southwest," Spencer says dispassionately. "We're talking 170 gallons a day for 100 million people."
Before you laugh, consider this: Presiding at the summit were board members from the two most important state and regional water panels--the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Colorado River Commission--and in the aftermath of this and a follow-up February meeting it's become clear that Spencer has momentum on his side. Led by CRC board chairman Janet Rogers, a skeptical but intrigued majority of officials has been impressed enough that Spencer may soon get a go-ahead to punch sand--on his own terms and perhaps as early as this spring. Though critics have derided Spencer as a flake, he's so sure of his data that he'll pony up $145,000 to pay for a 12-hole test drill, so long as he gets a promise that no other drill permits will be issued around his still-secret site, which sits on state-owned public land, along with the guarantee of a jumbo finder's fee, possibly reaching $40 million, if the water is there.
Some experts scoff at the idea of putting any effort into such an improbable project. "Wally's claim violates all known principles of hydrology," says Terry Katzer, the SNWA's research director. Among several raps, Katzer says seismic activity would have long ago disrupted an underground river of this size. Others, pointing to smaller subsurface conduits in eastern Nevada, doubt Spencer's theory but don't rule it out. "If it's no great risk for the state to investigate," says Jack Hess, director of water resources at the Desert Institute in Las Vegas, "why not go ahead and help Wally?"
Spencer's unlikely Rain Man role dates back to the late eighties, when he left a job designing booster rockets for Thiokol Corporation in Brigham City, Utah, to try wildcat oil exploration. Using images beamed from various space shuttle flights, he located what looked like an ancient riverbed in the southern Nevada desert. Elsewhere, such landmarks have been tip-offs to underground oil reservoirs, so Spencer custom-built a radiation detector, a proven tool for divining the presence of subsurface liquids, mounted it on the back of a four-wheel-drive pickup, and bounced into the sandy expanse to find black gold.
Before long, Spencer detected something big and wet, but after several months he decided he'd found not oil but water--specifically, a large river. His hypothesis of a source in British Columbia is guesswork pegged to the well-known fact that the province is riddled with underground streams created by snowmelt. Spencer figures they meander southward, merging to create the Big Wally as they approach Nevada.
Spencer's biggest obstacle has been Pat Mulroy, the SNWA's general manager and the state's top water czar. Mulroy, who preaches careful water allocation, says Spencer should investigate his claim without state help. Nonetheless, his Water Summit proposal, which was on deck with old schemes like towing Arctic icebergs, got rave reviews. "There are enough Wally believers now that this has to move forward," says CRC commissioner Larry Shefler.
The next step is the forging of a contract between Spencer and the water authorities, which at press time was expected to happen by April. Spencer is already looking ahead. "Once I get permission, I'll go out and drill," he says. "After that it'll be like that movie: If you build it, they will come."