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Utah governor weighing options to Snake Valley water standoff

Published November 14, 2012 8:05 am

Resources • Lawyer says deal with Nevada would protect Utah, but Millard, Juab counties object.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A lawyer appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert told a legislative panel Tuesday that the safest bet for Utah to protect water rights in the Snake Valley would be to sign an agreement with Nevada despite objections from Millard and Juab counties.

But the State Water Development Commission didn't make any recommendations on the controversial matter at its meeting in the Capitol — nor did Herbert deputy chief of staff Mike Mower request any endorsement of the agreement.

"We are better off with the agreement than without it," said Steve Clyde, one of the attorneys asked by the governor to review a proposed agreement with Nevada. "Clearly it's not perfect, but it's better than being left to the whims of U.S. Supreme Court litigation."

Mower said Herbert didn't request action from the commission because the key objectors to the water deal weren't able to attend the commission meeting.

Mower said he didn't feel comfortable representing their objections.

Those gripes center around the Snake Valley Water Agreement signed by Nevada officials three years ago that would allow the Silver State to pump water to Las Vegas as part of a $15.5 billion pipeline project. Both Millard County and Juab County officials believe the pumping would cause irreparable harm to farms and they'd have no recourse once the water was being siphoned away.

Steve Erickson of the Great Basin Water Network, a conservation group, told the commission it was "not in the best interest of the state" to ink the deal that was signed by Nevada officials in 2009.

Erickson, Millard and Juab county officials would like the agreement to offer a compensation or preservation fund for lost revenues due to water shortages caused by the diversion of water to southern Nevada.

Mower said the governor didn't want to make a decision on the matter until a meeting with Millard County officials could be arranged. He also noted Bureau of Land Management has to approve the project.

In August, Herbert picked three lawyers with expertise in water issues to review Utah's options on the Snake Valley development and they concluded last month that the agreement, in part, "allocates this shared groundwater resource on an equal 50-50 basis."

It also read: "Through a tiered development approach, the agreement protects existing Utah appropriated water rights for uses including irrigation, stock water and domestic use and for habitat protection at Fish Springs."

The state felt prompted when, in August, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority sent an email to her board saying it should sue Utah for failing to sign the agreement.

Clyde told the commission that the other options — a lawsuit or a "race to the pump" would be a big gamble for Utah.

"The rule of thumb is, if you have to prove damage, you lose," Clyde said.

But in a subsequent letter to the governor, Millard County commissioners indicated they were unswayed.

"A 50-50 split is nonsensical," the commissioners stated, "because it contradicts the geographical reality that the vast majority of groundwater consumption and historic usage, have occurred and continue to occur on the Utah side."

Utah's historic allocation is about 55,000 acre feet per year to Nevada's 12,000, according to the commissioners. They said the agreement also would give Nevada 36,000 acre feet per year of unallocated groundwater to 5,000 for Utah.

Juab and Tooele counties and Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon have urged Herbert to listen to Millard County.

dmontero@sltrib.com

Twitter: @davemontero