October 19, 2009

Did Utah blink in Snake Valley talks?

Water » New documents show Beehive State's position changed after Nevada's threats.

By Patty Henetz
The Salt Lake Tribune

About halfway through secret four-year negotiations on how a reluctant Utah could share the Snake Valley aquifer with Nevada, a Silver State official and a Las Vegas water utility threatened they could take the matter to court or to Congress, memos and e-mails show.

The correspondence, released under an open-records request from the Great Basin Water Network, illuminates Nevada's no-surrender insistence that Snake Valley water be split 50-50, even though Utah officials believed that impossible.

The documents also appear to undermine recent assurances from Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, that the proposed water-sharing agreement is as good for Utah as it is for Nevada.

It's not, critics have said repeatedly at public meetings and in comments submitted to the Utah Division of Water Rights since the August announcement of a draft deal with Nevada to plumb the west desert.

"It might be an exaggeration to say we got rolled, but we surely backtracked," said Steve Erickson of the Great Basin Water Network. "I was surprised the state backed down on all those positions and that they're advocating this agreement so adamantly when once they were opposed to them."

Many critics have denounced the agreement as a giveaway to Las Vegas at the expense of an aquifer that can maintain equilibrium only with its current water drawdown.

On Monday, Styler acknowledged that the correspondence with Allen Biaggi, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, showed he and other Utah negotiators believed their neighboring state's demands spelled trouble for Utah.

Styler also said he agreed with many of the nearly 200 or so critical comments his department has heard since announcing a tentative agreement with Nevada to divide evenly an estimated 132,000 acre-feet of Snake Valley water a year.

"It makes me smile to see those comments," he said, because those are the very points we've been hammering at all this time."

Nevada negotiators "were dead set they had to come up with a 50-50 [split]," Styler said. "We were saying there was no way, when we're already using more than half that."

A key problem was a U.S. Geological Survey study that estimated Snake Valley's aquifer could yield up to 132,000 acre-feet of water a year. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, enough to irrigate an acre of ground with a foot of water or supply water to one or two households.

But Styler said a sustainable drawdown would be only 105,000 to 111,000 acre-feet per year. The proposed agreement would divvy 108,000 acre-feet, with Utah getting 60 percent. The remaining 26,000 acre-feet of "reserve" water, Styler said, couldn't be tapped unless both states agree, "if it's even there."

Even if it is, said Snake Valley resident Kathy Hill, "I think 108,000 acre-feet may be on the upper end of realistic."

In a Sept. 30, 2006, memo to Biaggi, Styler said the Southern Nevada Water Authority, frustrated with the pace of the negotiations, had threatened to take the matter to its congressional members, who could try to change a 2004 law requiring both states to agree on a water split.

And letters from two years ago make it clear Utah didn't want to base a 50-50 agreement on the USGS estimate, which the federal agency said was only 67 percent reliable and included water used by the plants that now keep Snake Valley soil from blowing straight to the Wasatch Front.

"The harder Utah looks at that criteria, the less reasonable it looks to Utah," Styler wrote to Biaggi on July 31, 2007. "We are unaware of any reasoning that would lead us to conclude a 50/50 split is equitable or based on any scientific or legal grounds."

Hill and her husband, Ken, have a farm in Partoun in Juab County and work in Tintic School District. Kathy Hill said she has studied the documents and finds them both reassuring and frustrating.

"The Utah negotiators," she said, "were saying exactly what we're saying now."

She disliked the tone of Biaggi's 15-page correspondence of Oct. 9, 2007, which said Utah's refusal to negotiate in good faith causes Nevada "injury" -- a key component of any lawsuit -- and that after Utah added a new negotiator the previous spring, the discussion "regressed from its earlier movement toward common ground."

That negotiator is Dean Baker, a Nevada rancher who has spent millions of dollars fighting Nevada's plan for the Las Vegas pipeline.

"I was so outraged when I read that," Hill said.

Biaggi said Monday he wouldn't apologize for the letter's tone.

"At the time, the negotiations were not going well," he said. The letter "lays out the state of Nevada's position and what was at stake for both states ... if the two states could not get an agreement."

The proposed deal

The Southern Nevada Water Authority wants to build a 300-mile pipeline that would siphon 50,000 to 60,000 acre-feet of water from the Snake Valley to support current and anticipated growth in Las Vegas.

An acre-foot supplies up to two households for a year.

A draft water-sharing accord, advanced as a hedge against court battles, would divide a presumed 132,000 acre-feet a year between Utah and Nevada.

But the agreement doesn't authorize pumping. Nevada's state engineer would make that decision in 2019 if the deal becomes final or in 2011 if it does not.

Opponents include Salt Lake, Utah, Millard and Juab counties, west desert ranchers, Utah and Nevada conservationists, the Utah Medical Association and the National Park Service.

The Utah Department of Natural Resources backs the proposed accord as do the Washington County Water Conservation District, Ivins City and the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.