The right decision
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert made the right decision Wednesday when he announced he would not sign a controversial pact that ostensibly would have shared with Nevada the precious groundwater beneath the border-straddling Snake Valley.
Herbert said he based his decision on what he learned from listening to those who stood to be most affected by the deal local officials, Indian tribes, ranchers and other landowners. Most of them feared the agreement would lead to a disastrous draw-down of the small quantity of water that barely supports a delicate ecosystem.
"A majority of local residents do not support the agreement with Nevada," the governor said. "Therefore, I cannot in good conscience sign the agreement because I won't impose a solution on those most impacted that they themselves cannot support."
Herbert wants to be known as someone who listens to the people. And there is nothing wrong with that. But the governor would have been on solid ground to reject the deal for many other reasons as well. The fact that he didn't mention any of them is troubling, if not entirely relevant to the outcome.
At the risk of sounding like an environmentalist, Herbert could have said that any effort by Nevada developers to siphon even small amounts of water from the Snake Valley could have so upset the tender balance that already tentative farming and ranching operations would be wiped out.
Not only that, but the resulting dust bowl would create particulate clouds that would easily travel as far as the Wasatch Front, making its already poor quality air even worse.
Nevada pitched this deal with the promise that its Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies water to the incontinent community of Las Vegas, could take its half of the Snake Valley water without harming existing users. Imagine drinking from a straw with one end at the bottom of a glass of water and expecting the level at the top to stay constant.
The deal also promised that, if it later turned out that the water was being mined in ways that harmed Utahns with previous water rights, the draw down would stop.
But, after becoming dependent on that supply, and after spending billions on the pipeline that would carry the water south, the idea that Las Vegas would ever willingly shut off that hose was not the least bit credible.
The stick that accompanied those iffy carrots was the threat that, if the governor didn't sign the deal, SNWA might be able to punish Utah in various ways. Those would include seeking even larger amounts of water rights, opposing other water deals that would benefit Utah and tying the whole matter up in court for years.
But a state where leaders are ready, willing and able to spend millions on legal action for pointless and frivolous dreams such as, say, wresting some 30 million acres of federal land away from the people of the United States should have no fear in joining a legal battle to protect its water, its air, its way of life.
The fact is that the people who wanted to stick their straw into Snake Valley water now have, and always will have, only one interest: Providing Las Vegas with all the water it can consume in its flashy fountains and green golf courses.
As a state governor, Herbert had many other factors to consider. He did not forget that, and he made the right call.