Opponents of a plan to pipe water from Nevada's rural valleys to Las Vegas won big last week when a judge said the state engineer didn't consider the project's full impact when he approved it.
Nevada Judge Robert Estes' decision means that the engineer must have more and better justification before allowing the Southern Nevada Water Authority to pump 61,000 acre-feet of water from Nevada's Spring Valley. That justification includes protection of ranchers and other water users in nearby Snake Valley in Utah along with ranches on the Nevada side, including one owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of the entities that sued to stop the project.
The judge wisely put the brakes on this project, but the forces behind it are still rolling.
The western United States faces a growing population and a changing climate that is only going to increase the intensity of water fights like this. Balancing uses for agriculture, which takes more water than residences and businesses, will be a major challenge whether SNWA comes back with another Spring Valley plan or not.
It's tempting to characterize this as a greedy Las Vegas sucking lifeblood from delicate ecosystems and small ranching communities to feed the Bellagio fountain. The truth is more subtle. SNWA numbers show its users actually have reduced their per-capita demand of water by almost a third since 2002.
And therein lies the most important and immediate solution: conservation. Golf courses in the Las Vegas area have been put on "water budgets," and they can pay as much as nine times their normal rates for water exceeding those budgets. New single-family homes cannot have turf on more than 50 percent of yards. Residents aren't even allowed to wash their cars more than once a week, and they can't leave the hose running while they do it.
Utah has made gains through conservation, too, but we haven't been as aggressive.
Utah could also let the market play a bigger role by moving more water costs to user fees and away from property taxes. Water development, like education, is a community responsibility, and therefore a broad-based funding source like property tax has made sense. But user fees give people an incentive to save and should be a larger part of the funding pie.
Utahns cannot simply enjoy the spoils of victory in the Spring Valley decision. They need to cut their use, too, to avoid their own questionable water projects in the future.