February 10, 2009

Conservation group plans to sue feds over Nevada water project

Coyote Springs called habitat threat to tortoise, small fish


An endangered Moapa dace swims in a spring-fed stream on the Moapa National Wildlife Refuge, 60 miles north of Las Vegas. Between the refuge and nearby property recently acquired by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the dace's entire natural habitat is now in the hands of groups committed to its protection. Photo by John Locher

A national conservation group has announced plans to sue the federal government for failing to protect endangered fish and desert tortoises that could be harmed by groundwater development plans in northern Clark County.

The lawsuit promised by the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity targets the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management over agreements those agencies struck with the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the developers of Coyote Springs.

Officials for the environmental group insist groundwater withdrawals by the Coyote Springs development and the water authority could destroy crucial habitat for the endangered Moapa dace, a finger-length fish only found at the headwaters of the Muddy River, 60 miles north of Las Vegas.

“It is our contention that they are putting the Moapa Dace at greater risk of extinction,” said Rob Mrowska, Nevada conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The federally protected desert tortoise also faces habitat loss in Clark and Lincoln counties as a result of large-scale groundwater pumping and the residential development it would sustain, Mrowska said.

The environmental group today sent the two federal agencies a 60-day notice of its intent to sue. Such notice is required for lawsuits brought under the Endangered Species Act.

This is the center’s first lawsuit taking aim at the water authority’s plans to tap groundwater across eastern Nevada, but Mrowska hinted it might not be the last.

“This is possibly a precedent-setting action,” he said.

Kirsten Cannon, spokeswoman for the BLM in Southern Nevada, said the agency had not received the center’s notice of intent as of this afternoon. She declined further comment.

Bob Williams, state supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service, declined to address the specifics of the center’s claims, but he said he stands by his agency’s efforts to protect the Moapa dace and desert tortoise.

“I take issue that our opinions were not based on the best science available,” Williams said.

Water authority spokesman J.C. Davis defended the work being done to protect the Moapa dace — efforts he said are only occurring because of that soon-to-be-challenged agreement among the authority, federal agencies and others.

“While we welcome constructive input from those interested in protecting and recovering the Moapa dace, it would be a shame to see all of this good work jeopardized by a misguided lawsuit,” Davis said.

As part of its multibillion-dollar plan to pipe groundwater to Las Vegas from as far as 250 miles away in White Pine County, the water authority wants to tap water beneath the Coyote Springs Valley and in the Muddy River.

Separate from that effort is the 43,000-acre Coyote Springs development along U.S. Highway 93 about 55 miles north of Las Vegas.

At the moment, the development includes only a few basic roads and a golf course that opened last spring. Eventually, though, developer Harvey Whittemore hopes to turn his property straddling the line between Clark and Lincoln counties into Nevada’s newest city, complete with several hotel-casinos and as many as 160,000 homes.

Build-out is expected to take decades, but the first home lots are scheduled to go on sale at the end of next year. Home construction could begin in 2010.

When the Center for Biological Diversity files its lawsuit 60 days from now, it will seek an injunction to halt groundwater development in the area until the case can be argued, Mrowka said.