August 3, 2012

BLM signs off on water pipeline, but spares Snake Valley


Federal regulators have signed off on a plan to pipe groundwater to Las Vegas from across eastern Nevada, but they left out a valley on the Utah border where the project has met stiff resistance.

After roughly seven years of review, U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials are recommending access across federal land for water pipes and power lines extending roughly 300 miles from Las Vegas to Spring Valley in White Pine County.

But the Southern Nevada Water Authority would not be allowed to extend its multibillion-dollar pipeline into neighboring Snake Valley under the preferred alternative set for release today as part of BLM's review of the project.

Nevertheless, water authority General Manager Pat Mulroy said she was "delighted" to have federal support to build most of the pipeline if necessary.

"This project is now sitting out there as a safety net if the (Colorado) river really goes south," Mulroy said. "We now have the necessary water resources and the rights of way to protect Southern Nevada."

In May, Nevada's top water regulator granted the authority permission to pump up to 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from Spring Valley and three other watersheds in Lincoln and White Pine counties. When stretched through reuse, that is enough water to serve more than 300,000 Las Vegas Valley homes.

Critics of the project argue that large-scale pumping will devastate the environment and the livelihoods of rural residents - all while producing too little groundwater to do Southern Nevada much good.

The authority seeks up to 51,000 acre-feet more in Snake Valley, but those applications have been stalled by a lingering rift between Nevada and Utah.

In 2009, officials in the two states reached a water-sharing agreement for the valley, which straddles the state line west of Great Basin National Park. But the pact, struck after four years of closed-door negotiations, never took effect because Utah never signed it.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the amount of available water in the basin, the BLM had no choice but to exclude Snake Valley from its recommendation, Mulroy said.

She accused Utah of "bad-faith bargaining and inaction" that has restricted Nevada's ability to manage its own water resources. If the two states cannot settle their differences soon, she said, Nevada might be forced to take the dispute to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Utah rancher and pipeline foe Cecil Garland called BLM's exclusion of Snake Valley a "pyrrhic and possibly temporary victory" that won't protect it from the impacts of excessive pumping in neighboring basins.

Once Las Vegas water officials commit billions of dollars to build the pipeline, they will have to keep pursuing water rights in Snake and other valleys farther north in Nevada to justify the expense, Garland said in a statement. "If they build it, they will fill it."

Water authority officials insist they have not committed to the project, which could wind up costing more than $3 billion for construction and another $12 billion in financing and inflationary costs.

The plan dates back almost 25 years, when Southern Nevada water officials filed more than 100 applications for unappropriated water rights across rural Nevada.

Back then, the pipeline was meant to supply growth in the Las Vegas Valley. Now it is being touted as a backup supply for a community that gets 90 percent of its water from an overtaxed Colorado River and a shrinking Lake Mead.

Because of the stakes involved, Mulroy said, the rural groundwater already granted for the pipeline is justification enough, regardless of the cost.

"When the time comes, the question won't be can we afford to build it; it will be can we afford not to build it," she said.

But local conservationist Rob Mrowka, from the Center for Biological Diversity, said that local water customers already are reeling from price hikes leveled by the authority to help pay down $2.5 billion in construction debt. A $15 billion pipeline would be a "financial catastrophe" for the community, he said.

"There are other ways to ensure a livable and sustainable Las Vegas Valley," he said, namely by controlling growth and stepping up conservation efforts to further reduce per-capita water use.

The BLM's recommendation for rights of way is included in a final environmental impact statement for the so-called Clark, Lincoln and White Pine Counties Groundwater Development Project, which officially comes out today with the publication of a notice in the Federal Register.

The document will be available for public review and comment at least until Oct. 1. Sometime after that, the secretary of the interior will issue a record of decision, based on BLM's findings, that spells out exactly where the water authority will be allowed to build its water pipes and power lines.

Opponents still hold out hope that the interior secretary will reject the project outright. If that doesn't happen, they probably will take their fight against the pipeline rights of way to federal court.

A legal challenge is already under way in state court seeking to overturn the decision in May that granted the authority water for its pipeline.

Mulroy has little doubt that more lawsuits are on the way. She never expected this to be easy. "We're just going to have to keep fighting," she said.

Those seeking to stop the pipeline have vowed to do the same.