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Utah, Salt Lake County add to criticism of Vegas pipeline project

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 1 2011 3:57 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The state of Utah and Salt Lake County are among those who have weighed in on a preliminary analysis of a controversial pipeline project in neighboring Nevada, adding their criticism to a chorus of opposition.

Southern Nevada Water Authority is proposing to build a pipeline to Las Vegas that would convey water pumped from deep aquifers in eastern Nevada valleys. One of those valleys that could have groundwater withdrawals is Snake Valley, which is a basin shared by Nevada and Utah.

A required analysis by the Bureau of Land Management on the water authority's right-of-way application closed for public comment in mid-October, just in time for a series of extensive hearings to begin by the Nevada State Engineer's Office.

Water right applications for the groundwater withdrawals are pending in Nevada, a process that had to start from square one again after Nevada's Supreme Court shot down previous decisions rendered by the State Engineer's Office.

Both Salt Lake County and John Harja, director of Gov. Gary Herbert's Office of Public Lands Policy Coordination, said BLM's draft analysis released this summer failed to take the "hard look" required by federal law.

Any substantial drawdown of the aquifer in Nevada's portion of Snake Valley has sparked significant worries by Salt Lake County and the state over the resulting wind-blown dust that would result. The fear is that a compromise of water resources in the arid region could kill off native plants that hold the soil together.

"The project will create a permanent source of windblown particulate pollution in Salt Lake County," wrote Kimberly Barnett, the county's environmental coordinator out of Mayor Peter Corroon's office.

Barnett pointed out that the county already remains a non-attainment zone for EPA's air quality standards for fine particulates and any increase in regional air pollution will have a direct impact on Salt Lake County.

Harja called the analysis "substantively and structurally deficient," and said it failed to use the best scientific information available, as required by federal environmental laws.

"Fundamentally ... this project has great potential to impose negative impacts on the state's air quality, water quality, wildlife, economy and health of Utah's citizens."

Harja took issue with the BLM's statement that only a small fraction of wind-blown dust from the project would be expected to come into Salt Lake County, saying the agency's conclusion has the state "seriously concerned."

He also said the analysis was "grossly inadequate" because it only contemplated groundwater drawdowns greater than 10 feet, essentially ignoring the biological importance of smaller groundwater systems.

The west desert areas of Juab and Millard counties in the Great Basin Region contain sensitive or federal candidate species that rely on those springs, such as the least chub and springsnail.

Harja said the federal agency should adopt mitigation efforts that at the very least are as stringent as what the state of Nevada and Utah signed off on in a draft agreement that awaits a Utah endorsement.

Such protections include a biological monitoring plan, a management response and operation plan, as well as an air quality protection plan.

The BLM analysis took a departure from tradition when it did not settle on a preferred alternative for the project's proposal, saying such a conclusion would be premature because the determination of how much groundwater — if any — has not yet been reached.

One of the alternatives listed, however, is the "No Snake Valley Alternative" which would involve the BLM denying any right-of-application in Nevada's portion of Snake Valley.

Members of Utah's Snake Valley Advisory Committee, of which Corroon is a member,  voted last month to urge adoption by the BLM of that option.

Hearings by the Nevada state water engineer over water-right applications are continuing through Nov. 18. On Monday, representatives from Millard and Juab counties, as well as Eskdale, Millard County, presented arguments to the engineer and on Tuesday, representatives from the Great Basin Water Network were making their case.

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

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