DELTA — A pipeline that could tap water from an arid basin straddling Utah and Nevada could be years away from reality — if it ever gets to that — but opposition remains strong in this rural area of ranchers and farmers.
"The alternative I would like to see is no action," said Frank Paxton from neighboring Kanosh. "This pumping and pipeline project would have a huge impact on the rangelands of this basin that at this point I am emotionally involved with."
Paxton was among a handful of residents who voiced concerns Thursday night at Delta High School's gymnasium during a public meeting hosted by the Bureau of Land Management over a groundwater project.
A draft environmental impact statement was released by the federal agency earlier this summer and is going through the public input process for comments. The deadline for comments is Oct. 11.
In a departure from what is usual, the federal agency did not approve or reject the pipeline plan or any alternative, saying a conclusion is impossible without knowing how much groundwater ultimately will be tapped. That remains to be determined by the Nevada State Engineer, who will convene hearings on water right applications in late September.
Still, the agency was criticized by some for going through a process described as premature given the pending water rights issue and for evaluating impacts when locals say they already know the water withdrawals cannot be sustained.
Clayton Jeffery, with Millard County Water District, compared it a feeble old man going to the doctor and getting a battery of tests performed.
"To me it is let the doctor check us over, make us feel good, but it is all for nothing. We're still going to die of old age."
The Southern Nevada Water Authority wants to build a 285-mile pipeline that would convey water from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas area communities.
Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water supply from Lake Mead, which has been driven to the lowest levels in decades because of drought.
Although described as a project of "last resort" by water authority officials, the pipeline would provide a backup plan for water that would carry Las Vegas into the future.
Opponents, however, say the mostly arid, sparsely populated basins of eastern Nevada cannot support such a withdrawal, which they fear would dry up their livelihoods as ranchers and farmers.
Snake Valley, which straddles the border of Nevada and Utah, would be tapped on the Nevada side as well, giving rise to opponents from Utah who characterize the efforts to tap the aquifer as the "Las Vegas Water Grab."
The BLM, in its preliminary analysis of the water authority's right of way application for the pipeline, did come up with two alternatives that physically leave Snake Valley alone. Neighboring Spring Valley could be tapped under one of the proposals, leading skeptics to fear long-term impacts to the Utah.
Opponents to the pumping include multiple counties in Utah as well as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has ranching operations that use well water for irrigation.
The authority counters it has every right to tap into the shared resource — which is fed by precipitation that falls in the mountains of eastern Nevada and flows underground into Utah and eventually into the Great Salt Lake.
Last year, Nevada and Utah were on the brink of signing a water-sharing agreement that proposed to evenly split 132,000 acre-feet of groundwater from Snake Valley.
Utah negotiators, although not overwhelmingly pleased with the plan, said it was the best available option that would avert an all out water war while still being protective of existing users and environmental impacts.
Under the agreement, Nevada received more "unallocated" water than did Utah, as well as three times as much "reserve" water — that is water that no one knows exists beyond what's put down on paper.
State officials insisted an agreement that would protect existing water users in Utah and mitigate environmental impacts to sensitive or endangered species is better than no agreement at all — which Nevada doesn't need to proceed with its efforts to get the water from four of the five basins.
The agreement at this point remains in limbo because of a Nevada Supreme Court decision that told the state water engineer to restart the hearing process on water right applications filed by the water authority.
Mark Ward, with the Utah Association of Counties, told the BLM hearing officer Thursday night that absent the agreement, any pipeline route that contemplates going into Snake Valley flagrantly violates a Congressional act that dictates a water sharing agreement must be reached in a shared basin.
"It just ain't legal."