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Snake Valley plan drafted

Preliminary deal reached on controversial aquifer

Published: Friday, Aug. 14 2009 12:26 a.m. MDT

After four years of negotiations, Utah and Nevada officials have created a draft agreement for management of the controversial Snake Valley aquifer straddling both states.

Overall, it allows a 50 percent split of the water between the two states, strives for clean air and other environmental concerns and postpones new uses of the valley's water for a decade, pending further study.

The water-rights fight, which pits farmers and environmentalists against the needs of a sprawling metropolis hundreds of miles away, is a battle that experts say will increasingly be played out across the West as water sources dry up.

In this case, Nevada officials hope to build a 285-mile pipeline that would pump water from the Snake Valley to Las Vegas. But environmentalists say if the pipeline were approved it would suck so much water out of the valley that plants that hold the soil in place would die, potentially creating giant dust storms that would affect air quality as far away as the Wasatch Front.

According to the draft agreement announced Thursday, the proposed pipeline couldn't tap into the Snake Valley until at least September 2019. Four public meetings are now planned on the proposal, which can be downloaded online.

More than 100 miles long, the Snake Valley in Utah extends from the south end of western Tooele County to western Iron County.

"The goal of the agreement is to protect the way of life of the water users in Snake Valley," said Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

"The cornerstone of this is protection of existing (water) rights," Allen Biaggi, Nevada's director of Conservation and Natural Resources, said.

The agreement addresses environmental concerns over wildlife and air quality in the area and even extends to Utah's Fish Springs, located just outside the northeast end of Snake Valley.

The controversy began when the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) announced plans to tap a large amount of water from the Snake Valley aquifer that straddles the Utah/Nevada border.

While most of Snake Valley is in Utah, 60 percent of its water originates in the mountains of Nevada to the west, giving rise to the water authority's claims that the groundwater is a shared resource. Most of the usable, flat Snake Valley land is in Utah too.

Dean Baker, a Nevada resident who owns and farms land in both states in the area, was a citizen representative to draft the proposal. He still doesn't want that pipeline built, but said, "I am in favor of this agreement."

"I hope this 10 years gives us time," he said of studying all the unknowns of this important underground aquifer.

He said he's also happy it's a preemptive agreement, because mitigation only equals dollars as compensation. "And you can't drink dollars," Baker said.

Millard County is probably the only Utah governmental entity that still opposes the agreement. J. Mark Ward, a senior policy analyst representing Millard County, said the county doesn't favor the fact that the agreement divides up the unappropriated groundwater there 7-to-1 in Nevada's favor for the first 41,000 acre feet.

"That is grossly inequitable because the vast majority of Snake Valley lies in Utah," he said.

Styler said the agreement anticipates future unknowns and still divides its estimated total equally.

Biaggi said Las Vegas relies on the Colorado River for 90 percent of its current water and needs an alternative, because it is not good for a city to rely on just one source.

Styler said Utah has never been against the pipeline, only against any Utah water flowing through it. This agreement solves that key issue.

Also, not all of the 36,000 acre feet of unallocated water Nevada receives in the agreement will necessarily go to the pipeline, Biaggi said.

Styler and Biaggi are the ones who will eventually sign the agreement, sometime after the 30-day comment period, under the direction of their governors, both of whom are currently reported to be in favor of it.

e-mail: lynn@desnews.com

Snake Valley agreement

Public meetings:

1 p.m. Monday, Baker, Nev., community gymnasium

7 p.m. Monday, Millard County Fair Building, Delta

10 a.m.-noon Tuesday, Utah DEQ building No. 2, 168 N. 1950 West, Salt Lake City

9 a.m. Thursday, SNWA offices, Las Vegas

 Written comments will be accepted until Sept. 14. E-mail: snakevalley@utah.gov. Mail: Snake Valley Agreement, Utah Department of Natural Resources, 1594 W. North Temple, Suite 220, Salt Lake City, UT 84114.

 Download the agreement and water plan at www.waterrights.utah.gov

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