By Mark Waite
The Nye County Water District Board last week voted to join the Great Basin Water Network challenge to a decision by the state water engineer allowing the Southern Nevada Water Authority to pump water out of four eastern Nevada valleys for a 300-mile pipeline to Las Vegas.
Nye County Commissioners will consider the request Tuesday. The pipeline would roughly parallel Highway 93 east of Nye County, but water board officials think it’s still too close for comfort and are weary of water grabs by the powerful Las Vegas water utility.
The state engineer March 22 granted approval for the SNWA to pump up to 84,000 acre feet from four rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties. That’s about two-thirds as much water as they were seeking, but 5,200 acre feet more than the SNWA received two years ago, in a decision that was struck down by the state Supreme Court. The court had problems with the procedural noticing requirements in the first request which was for 126,000 acre feet, an application which had been pending for 20 years.
An acre foot of water is enough for two households for one year. The SNWA approval of 84,000 acre feet would be enough water to supply roughly 286,000 households for a year. The SNWA plans to build a 300-mile pipeline to pump water from Spring, Dry Lake, Cave and Delamar valleys to the Las Vegas area.
State Engineer Jason King wants two years of scientific data collection before any water is exported from the groundwater basins. He also ordered the SNWA to develop state approved groundwater flow models and a monitoring and mitigation plan to protect against harmful effects to other water users and the environment.
The state engineer ruled the SNWA will be able to develop 61,127 acre feet in Spring Valley gradually to ensure the pumping doesn’t affect existing water rights. The SNWA will be allowed to pump up to 38,000 acre feet of water rights a year for the first eight years of the project, after that it could increase to as much as 50,000 acre feet over the next eight years and then 61,127 acre feet per year after that.
The state engineer, in his decision, said it wouldn’t be advisable for the state’s largest community to continue to depend on a river that is over-appropriated, highly susceptible to drought and shortage and almost certain to provide significantly less water to Southern Nevada in the future.
Great Basin Water Network states more than 300 local governments, Indian tribes, ranchers, farmers, businesses, environmental groups and others filed petitions for judicial review appealing the decision that would pump up to 27 billion gallons from rural valleys.
A statement from the water network reads:
“The appeal to state district court casts further financial and legal uncertainty over a massive and many observers say unnecessary project that would cost well over $15 billion and cause devastating environmental impacts in an area of the Intermountain West larger than the states of new Jersey and Massachusetts combined. SNWA’s controversial project would provide water for growth and supplement its Lake Mead water supply, although Las Vegas has had virtually no growth for the better part of a decade.”
The Great Basin Water Network mission statement urges more water conservation in the Las Vegas Valley as an alternative.
“The decision sanctions large scale groundwater mining which will draw down the groundwater system in a pervasively and seriously damaging manner and cause particularly serious harm to existing water rights in the affected valleys,” the network said.
The water network predicts ranching, farming, mining and a variety of tourist recreational opportunities would be affected.
The membership on the Great Basin Water Network includes a number of environmentalists, including Rose Strickland from the Sierra Club, Abigal Johnson and Joanne Garrett, who previously served on the anti-nuclear group Citizen Alert, Don Dugg of Utah Trout Unlimited, Launce Rake with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and Rick and Delaine Spilsbury, with the Ely Shoshone Tribe.
“We appealed this decision because it would set a precedent that one big city and a few narrow business interests can trample over the economic and environmental future of many rural communities and huge areas of the country,” said Susan Lynn, coordinator with the Great Basin Water Network.
White Pine County Commissioner Gary Perea said, “we really had no choice but to appeal the state engineer’s rulings because they pave the way for SNWA to drain our valleys of their native groundwater, which will devastate ranchers, farmers and other local businesses with senior water rights and destroy the local environment.”
Nye County Water District board member Roberta “Midge” Carver told the board March 26 what’s most bothersome is the SNWA is going to go farther north to get water. She said the first SNWA request was struck down as being frivolous and capricious and didn’t take into consideration the livelihoods and economic well being of the counties it will impact.
At that meeting, Nye County Water District Manager Darrell Lacy told the board, “There’s been at least some speculation in the past this amount of water did not justify the figures for the construction of the pipeline so SNWA may not be happy with this as well as the groups that do not want SNWA playing in their sand box, which Nye County is probably one of those.”
Water board member Tim McCall suggested taking a second look at filings by the SNWA on water rights in Railroad Valley in northeastern Nye County. But there have been questions over how Nye County could put those 111,491 acre feet of water rights in Railroad Valley to beneficial use to retain them as required under state law.
McCall mentioned there is now talk about the federal government possibly being able to fund some of the pipeline cost, along with the “third straw” being built into Lake Mead.
Carver pointed out the reason for creating the Nye County Water District in the first place was because the SNWA wouldn’t talk to Nye County without a water district in place.