November 11, 2009

Put water deal on hold


Deseret News

Until recently, Utah negotiators may have felt they were in a weak position when it came to working out a deal with Nevada over the future of Snake Valley water. It was assumed that Nevada could simply pump right up to its border, which was why Utah fought to get a federal bill to include a provision that Utah and Nevada would reach an agreement on the water before any of it could be pumped.

That position has now changed. In a ruling handed down last month, Judge Norman Robinson of Nevada's 7th Judicial District said the Nevada state engineer "abused his discretion" by granting water rights to the Southern Nevada Water Authority in three valleys on the Nevada side of the area. Specifically, the judge said the decision was made without considering how downstream users would be impacted and without using sound science. The consequences to people downstream, he said, could be "oppressive."

It can be assumed that people living on the Utah side of the area are just as much downstream as those in Nevada.

"Oppressive" would be a good word to describe how many ranchers in Utah, and even Nevada, feel about the proposal to pump water from beneath their land to sustain growth in Las Vegas. As a front-page story in this newspaper on Sunday detailed, the people who would be affected by the pumping have firsthand knowledge of how precious water is to their way of life. One man described how his own water needs once dried up the well of a neighbor. That puts some perspective on what might happen if tens of thousands of acre-feet are pumped out.

Beyond that, there are scientific questions that cannot easily be answered. If water beneath the valleys was pumped, would fragile greasewood shrubs die, thus leading to loose soil and more frequent dust storms? Would pumping allow contaminated water near the Great Salt Lake to spread underground, leaving the soil above contaminated, as well?

The only definitive way to answer these questions may be to pump the water and see what happens. But even though a draft agreement between the states calls for the close monitoring of environmental impacts, such problems may prove easier to prevent, by not allowing pumping, than to fix.

We hope the Snake Valley Aquifer Advisory Council now asks Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to suspend negotiations with Nevada, and that he agrees. Herbert has yet to sign off on the draft agreement between the states.

Nevada is planning to appeal Judge Robinson's decision. At the least, Utah should back away pending that appeal. The need to quickly get an agreement in place, at least from Utah's point of view, has now vanished.