Utah Gov. Gary Herbert stands by his decision against signing a proposed agreement with Nevada for sharing groundwater under the Snake Valley, an agricultural region straddling the state line.
That's according to a top aide, Mike Mower, speaking Tuesday before the State Water Development Commission.
But that doesn't mean Herbert is not interested in reaching an accord with Nevada. Rather he hopes to negotiate a new deal acceptable to Snake Valley residents, who stand the most to lose if the Southern Nevada Water Authority starts pumping groundwater for export to Las Vegas.
The agreement as currently worded allocates more water than is truly available and does not divide the water equitably, said Mower, himself a member of the commission.
"Absent an agreement, Nevada could take action that would allow the transfer of Utah water to Nevada without any Utah involvement or oversight," the commission wrote in a May 31 letter to Herbert. "Without protections provided in the agreement, negative environmental impacts could affect the entire state, not just the Snake Valley area."
However, Las Vegas is years away from being in any position to pump Snake Valley's groundwater.
"SNWA has no water rights or a right of way for a pipeline there. Even if they had the water rights they don't have any way to get them out of there. We have some time here," said Steve Erickson, coordinator for the Great Basin Water Network, which opposes the Las Vegas groundwater pumping schemes.
In other business, Utah water managers predicted dire economic consequences if the state fails to build the Lake Powell Pipeline, the proposed 138-mile conduit to move 86,000 acre feet of water to St. George, and other water development projects.
"I want to make sure my kids and grandkids' futures are protected. I don't feel an obligation to send that water [downstream] to California, Arizona, Nevada or Mexico," said Ron Thompson, general manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District.
"We are moving in the right direction, our per-capita [daily] use is about 110 gallons. We are supporting 8 million visitors and a university of 10,000 students," Thompson said. "Conservation is important, but it will not get us through the 21st century without additional supply."
His answer is the controversial pipeline, expected to cost $1.5 billion. It would pull water from the overtapped Colorado River where it stored in Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam and pipe it to Sand Hollow Reservoir, disgorging 4,000 acre feet in Kane County along the way.
Thompson's remarks were quickly challenged by conservationists who were not permitted to address the commission.
"Utah is not running out of water. For the second meeting in a row this committee refused to take one second of public input while discussing indebting Utahns with billions and billions of dollars," Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said outside the meeting.
He noted that St. George's per capita water use is really 328 gallons, citing Washington County's own figures.
Commissioners, however, appeared convinced that the Lake Powell Pipeline and other major projects must be built. But no one could offer acceptable ideas on how to finance them. Bond markets aren't interested in funding projects that have a decades-long horizon for revenue generation and Utah's political climate is not keen on raising taxes, water rates or impact fees.