Deseret Morning News graphic

Nevada politics may be playing a role in an effort to reach an agreement between Utah and Nevada concerning groundwater that would be pumped from a valley running along both states.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority of Las Vegas has been eyeing the underground water resources of two valleys — the Spring Valley, entirely in Nevada, and the Snake Valley, which runs along the border of Utah and Nevada. The authority would like to build wells and a pipeline to pump 91,000 acre-feet of water from the first area and 25,000 acre-feet from the second, sending it to Las Vegas.

However, some Utah ranchers, conservationists and political leaders have expressed doubt that so much water can be extracted without harming agriculture, ranching and nature.

Cecil Garland, a rancher in Callao, Juab County, who is noted for his environmental concerns, said a rumor is circulating that Nevada pressured Utah officials to come up with the agreement.

The rumor is that Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, implied that "if Utah didn't get on the ball, he wouldn't help" with a bill Utah lawmakers want to have passed by Congress. The Deseret Morning News was unable to get a comment from Reid's office by press time.

Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said both candidates for governor of Nevada, "as they've campaigned throughout the state, have suggested that maybe this pipeline isn't that great an idea."

They have been hearing opposition from Nevadans to the idea. If so, backers of the project may be in a hurry to see an agreement between Utah and Nevada on the water before a new governor can be elected and derail the project.

A bill sponsored by Reid plays a role in the debate. The 2004 Lincoln County Land Act, as it's often called, mandates that before water is taken out of any basin shared between the two states, "there has to be an agreement between the state (Nevada) and Utah about how those waters will be shared and how they'll be developed," said J.C. Davis, spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

"We are collecting data that would allow us to enter into an agreement," said Boyd Clayton of the Utah Division of Water Rights.

The division has been reviewing rights of ranchers on the Utah side of the border, checking Snake Valley's hydrology and looking into the needs of sensitive species in the area.

Utah officials are discussing with their Nevada counterparts how an agreement would be structured, he said.

Besides sensitive species that have to be protected, Clayton said, the division is concerned about ranchers' water rights. The rights "need to be protected, and that's why we're tabulating those and making a record of those," he said.

Division experts are checking records about water rights. They are also "doing some physical checking of the lands, to remove some of the ambiguities," he said.

Asked if the state needs to make sure development does not damage ranchers' rights to underground water, he replied simply, "Yes."

A proposal to "mine this much water from the aquifer in that area" should have the closest scrutiny and most careful study, said Lawson LeGate, a Sierra Club official in Salt Lake City

"The potential for impacts on the human and physical environment are such that we should not rush to judgement," he said.

Meanwhile, the draft of a U.S. Geological Survey study about the water resources of the area, including Snake Valley and areas farther to the west in Nevada, is to be published in about a year.

Styler said Reid is interested in signing an agreement, "and we are, too."

The first part of the agreement will quantify "who's water is whose and how it's being used," Styler said.

Other issues will be tackled later, such as how much water is left after the needs are met.

"We've got staff out in the field taking that snapshot picture and verifying that the water's there," he said.

Besides agriculture and grazing interests, wildlife experts are involved in the project. People are "looking at the seeps and the springs for sensitive species, and quantifying and getting a tabulation of all those things as well," Styler said.

Some Nevada residents have suggested that instead of the groundwater pipeline, the state should focus on obtaining more water from the Colorado River system. But the Colorado is already fully apportioned.

"Of course, they're not going to get any more water out of the Colorado River," Styler said. "Utah and five other states would not allow that."

Therefore, Utah is supporting Nevada's efforts to develop its own water, he said.

"Where we will be drawing the line (is) don't infringe on the water that naturally flows to Utah," Styler said.

Leverage that Reid has on the issue involves the Washington County Lands Bill pending before Congress. Some Utah officials would like Reid's help with that bill.

Garland said he noticed a Utah official checking flows from a spring. But he is concerned the study may be rushed.

"The alarming thing about this is, what can they really find out in such a short period of time?" he asked.

Recent increases in water use by ranchers and residents have undercut earlier studies, he said. Water resources are being stressed, he said.

How can anyone say there's excess water, Garland added, in "one of the driest valleys in the Southwest, the driest region of the country? . . . It doesn't really make sense."

Davis said the Southern Nevada Water Authority would like to see an agreement reached between the two states "because we want the issues resolved."

However, Davis added, "there isn't any kind of hard-target deadline, because the water-right hearing on Snake Valley hasn't even been scheduled yet."