Meetings set on analysis probing Snake Valley pipeline

Published: Thursday, July 14 2011 11:45 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A voluminous draft environmental document probing the potential impacts of a controversial pipeline that would convey groundwater to Las Vegas acknowledges wide-ranging negative consequences, including creation of windblown dust and a potential to wipe out certain species that depend on small springs.

The Bureau of Land Management has released its draft Environmental Impact Statement on a right-of-way application it received from the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which hopes to build a pipeline in eastern Nevada for delivery to Las Vegas. A series of open houses and meetings begin Aug. 2 in which information will be presented and comments taken. The comment period ends Sept. 9.

Under the proposal, groundwater from five basins, including the Snake Valley straddling the border of Nevada and Utah, would be pumped from a labyrinth of aquifers that feed wells, springs, creeks and ponds in the typically arid, western desert region. Those water right applications are pending before the Nevada State Engineer, who has scheduled hearings for later this year.

It is because those applications remain in limbo that the BLM, in part, did not weigh in on its preferred agency action, such as suggesting it would reject the plan in favor of an alternative, accept the water authority's proposal, or nix it altogether.

"It is unusual to say the least," said Steve Erickson, Utah coordinator for the Great Basin Water Network, which has launched an aggressive campaign to defeat the pipeline. "Generally, there is a preferred alternative the BLM decides on."

The agency said, however, there is too much uncertainty and too much in dispute,  stressing that the actual quantity of the water to be pumped hinges on water rights granted. There is disagreement, too, over how to interpret varied hydrological studies on groundwater supplies, the agency noted.

In a summary of its 1,200-page findings, the BLM said it contemplated scenarios of drawing down the aquifers to 10 feet or more under a series of different withdrawal amounts. Potential impacts of those are outlined in detail, but generally, the agency concluded several key points:

Groundwater draw down would likely result in windblown dust due to drying of soils or reduction in basin shrubland vegetation.

Plants that depend on shallow groundwater would be replaced by shrubs that have longer root systems, although their density may decline. That decline would lead to increased risk of wildfires as annual invasive vegetation takes hold.

A complete loss of habitat and species could occur in small springs and even larger springs where all or most of the flow from aquifers is affected.

Pumping under any alternative could adversely affect species of threatened or endangered birds, as well as pygmy rabbits, bats and invertebrates.

Any draw down poses long-term risks to the agricultural sector in rural areas, with potential effects on grazing, irrigation and well development costs.

The BLM, too, acknowledged the very real impact the pipeline would have on the emotional and mental well-being of residents in the impacted areas.

"The onset of groundwater pumping would cause increasing distress for many residents of the rural area, stemming from their perceptions of risks to the local environment and concern for detrimental long-term effects on health, quality of life and livelihoods and those of successive generations," the summary reads. "For some residents, particularly in Snake and Spring valleys, personal distress would stem from the risk of loss of a valued rural way of life."

The BLM said for that reason, it is particularly seeking input that addresses Snake Valley concerns.

Erickson said the BLM's document explores concerns opponents have been raising for years.

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