"I'm afraid for my community and I wonder if this is the start of a long, slow goodbye," said West Desert elementary school teacher Kathy Hill, who along with her neighbors fears that the Southern Nevada Water Authority's groundwater pumping project will dry up and destroy a place - the Snake Valley - that they have called home for generations.
The SNWA plan calls for multiple well sites in Lincoln and White Pine counties that would take about 180,000 acre-feet of water annually out of eastern Nevada's aquifers. About 25,000 acre-feet would come yearly out of Snake Valley, which runs along the state line. Because Utah and Nevada share that aquifer, Utah's approval is necessary for the project - scheduled to be operational by 2015 - to go forward.
To that end, members of the interim Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee got an earful from local political leaders, who complained that the Huntsman administration hasn't been aggressive enough in combatting what one resident called "a naked water grab."
Said Millard County Commissioner John Cooper: "The governor has promised to protect us. But his appointees speak another language."
Snake Valley residents continue to be upset that the state is going forward in finalizing a water-sharing agreement with Nevada, which will apparently be signed before a detailed analysis of the region's groundwater resources is completed by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and other administration officials have vowed to protect the state's water interests and the livelihoods of the farmers and ranchers in Snake Valley. But local leaders say it is difficult to feel optimistic. Daron Smith, another Millard County commissioner, says he and other elected officials from the region have gotten the runaround from state agencies.
"We're willing to fight this, but we need some help," Smith said. "The problem is, as we've gone around to the various [state] departments, everybody's passing the buck. It's going to have to go through you folks [the Legislature] if we're going to get any financial help."
Department of Natural Resources officials have pegged a $1 million price tag to a series of groundwater tests and monitoring equipment that would be planted on the Utah side of the line.
Committee members at Monday's meeting, several of whom also sit on appropriations panels, said they would make the Snake Valley tests a funding priority during the upcoming session.
"If there's one thing the right wingers in the Legislature need to figure out, it's that this is a state issue," said Rep. David Ure, R-Kamas. "It's time for these folks to start putting their money where their mouths are."
Rep. Margaret Dayton, R-Provo, called the visit to the West Desert educational, and reinforced her opposition to a quick deal with Nevada.
"I had already made up my mind about this," she said. "This just strengthened my decision."
State lawmakers will meet today with some of their Nevada counterparts on the state line near Baker, Nev., then return to Salt Lake City.