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Utahns keeping close tabs on Nevada's water fight

Published June 10, 2013 7:14 am

Environment • Outcome of court case has wide repercussions.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The long-running fight over eastern Nevada's groundwater, some of which flows toward Utah, returns to court this week in Ely, where multiple parties square off over a controversial decision last year that would enable pumping in four basins to feed a Las Vegas-bound pipeline.

Nevada's 7th District Judge Robert Estes fields arguments Thursday and Friday on whether to toss Nevada State Engineer Jason King's decision to award Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) rights to several aquifers in the rural reaches of White Pine and Lincoln counties.

"There isn't the amount of water available to export without devastating effects upon senior water-rights holders, the environment and the communities in the region. It would take centuries after pumping ceases before these basins would return to equilibrium — so allowing SNWA to pump to these permitted limits would amount to illegal groundwater mining," said attorney Simeon Herskovits, who is representing a diverse group of petitioners that includes the Great Basin Water Network (GBWN).

SNWA's lawyers contend King's decision is nuanced, requiring the rights to be phased in over 16 years with careful monitoring. Staged development would allow withdrawals to be adjusted if it becomes apparent the pumping causes impermissible impacts.

"The state engineer saw the benefit of making this unused water available for use, but balanced that benefit with a measured, careful approach to allowing water development," the water authority wrote in its brief. "GBWN and other protestants make emotionally charged arguments against the groundwater project, but they cannot back them up with evidence."

Other petitions seeking to invalidate SNWA's water rights include Utah's Juab and Millard counties, various tribal interests, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which operates the 4,000-acre Cleveland Ranch in the northern part of Spring Valley. The cattle operation, which supplies beef to the church's Welfare Service Department, is concerned groundwater pumping could deplete its springs.

The struggle began 24 years ago when water agencies serving Nevada's fast-growing Clark County applied for rights to appropriate water from under 26 rural basins, including Snake Valley on the Utah state line, and the four Nevada valleys at issue in this week's court battle — Spring, Delmar, Cave and Dry Lake.

Las Vegas water honchos say they need to pump distant groundwater because Nevada does not get a fair share of the Colorado River's prodigious flow, forcing the desert metropolis to look for untapped sources to the north and underground.

The Bureau of Land Management last year granted rights of way to construct a $15 billion, 285-mile pipeline connecting these basins with Las Vegas. While the Snake Valley is not technically at issue in the case, Utah interests are tracking it because Snake and Spring valleys are connected hydrologically.

In March 2012, after hearing from 84 witness in a six-week hearing, King overruled the objections of rural residents and conservationists. He awarded the water authority rights to 84,000 acre-feet, mostly from Spring Valley — about 21,000 acre-feet less than Vegas wanted.

Critics of the water project believe King's monitoring requirements lack sufficient teeth to actually protect the valleys. After Las Vegas builds an 8-foot-diameter pipeline, there will be enormous economic pressures to fill it with water.

"It's one of those 'If you build it, they will come' things. Once you get a population dependent on a water source, how are you going to withdraw that from them?" asked Steve Erickson, a Salt Lake City conservationist on the Great Basin Water Network's board. Spring Valley groundwater flows to the northeast, while Cave, Dry Lake and Delmar groundwater flows south toward the over-allocated Colorado River.

"It's ancient water, so this is a temporary fix," he said. "Over the longer time, it is not going to supply the water."

bmaffly@sltrib.com