SNWA manager: Snake Valley pipeline 'last resort'

Published: Thursday, June 9 2011 12:47 a.m. MDT

BOULDER, Colo. — The head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority said the controversial plan to tap water in Utah's arid Snake Valley has to be crafted through cooperation and agreement — not by rattling sabers.

Pat Mulroy, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, was the keynote speaker Wednesday at a Colorado River conference at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Her message to conference attendees was clear: "The only way to solve water problems is from the bottom up."

Mulroy said the issues confronting Utah and the six other Colorado River basin states are best solved through agreements that are reached absent of litigation or other heavy-handed measures.

"The worst thing that can happen to us is that this gets resolved in the halls of Congress," she said, "because they are doing so well on all the other stuff."

Afterward, Mulroy said cooperation is key to resolving any attendant issues in the years to come with SNWA's desire to pipe water from a shared aquifer in Snake Valley, which straddles the borders of Nevada and Utah.

The $3 billion, 285-mile pipeline has already been the target of litigation and protests by environmental groups and others who depend on the groundwater in the largely arid, west desert region.

Both states were on the brink of signing a water-sharing agreement when the Nevada Supreme Court ordered the state engineer to re-evaluate water withdrawal impacts in a trio of Nevada valleys. That kicked off a new round of protests and new hearings on the water authority's original water rights applications from 1989.

Those hearings are likely to begin in late September and run through November.

In the meantime, the Bureau of Land Management has been forging ahead on its own analysis of potential environmental impacts to the area with a draft study expected by mid-June. The Utah Geological Survey has also been doing its own hydrological studies with monitoring wells that have been funded with monies provided by the Utah Legislature.

The concern is that Nevada's desire to pump 50,000 acre feet of water per year for households in the Las Vegas area will draw the aquifer down to such an extent that existing uses will be jeopardized and native plant and animal life threatened.

Protestors of the plan include multiple counties in Utah, including Salt Lake, Millard and Juab, as well as diverse groups such as Native American Indian tribes, ranchers, farmers and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which operates the Cleveland and Rogers ranches and has associated grazing permits in eastern Nevada.

The water authority has been looking for alternative water sources, especially in light of the drought-stricken Lake Mead, which dropped to a historic low last year.

Built on the Colorado River system, the reservoir delivers 90 percent of Las Vegas' drinking water supplies through valves that would be shut down should it drop to a certain level.

That has propelled the need for a backup supply — especially given that Nevada's share of the Colorado River is the lowest in the lower basin states and paltry compared to Utah's.

"We are so grateful this year it snowed," Mulroy said. "We bought ourselves a year. But if next year is followed by a 2002 hydrology year, everything we gained we will lose."

Mulroy said the authority is inching forward with its plans for a Snake Valley aquifer, but it is years off from being a reality.

"We are all interconnected," she said, stressing the need for interbasin cooperation dealing with water supply issues. "Snake Valley is a project of last resort — our backup plan."

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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