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Water rights granted in Nevada pipeline plan

Published: Thursday, March 22 2012 9:19 p.m. MDT

In this photo taken Friday March 12, 2010, a gate regulates the flow of water in this Gardnerville, Nev., irrigation canal. A Nevada Supreme Court ruling has triggered a tidal wave of legal uncertainty over decades of water rights sought by thirsty Las Vegas, dealing a big setback to the Southern Nevada Water Authority's plan for a massive pipeline project and raising questions about thousands of water rights around..

Sandra Chereb, Associated Press

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LAS VEGAS — Utah opponents to a Nevada pump and pipe plan are fearful a Thursday decision granting 83,900 acre-feet of water for the project will move it one step closer to reality.

The rulings by Nevada State Engineer Jason King are in support of water sought by the Southern Nevada Water Authority for a planned $3.5 billion, 300-mile pipeline. While the long-awaited decision Thursday impacts only eastern Nevada basins, at some point King may be asked to decide if the authority can withdraw water from Snake Valley, which straddles the Nevada-Utah border.

"Utahns should be concerned and opposed to this ruling because the groundwater in (adjacent) Spring Valley flows downhill into Snake Valley, so pumping the quantities permitted will have serious, adverse impacts on the Utah side," said Steve Erickson of the Great Basin Water Network. "It is unsound, unsustainable and unacceptable. It will not stand up to scrutiny."

Erickson said opponents will appeal to the Nevada district court.

King's rulings allow the Southern Nevada Water Authority to tap 6,042 acre-feet of water in Delamar Valley, 11,584 acre-feet of water in Dry Lake Valley and 5,235 acre-feet of water in Cave Valley.

Those water rights were conveyed under the condition that a two-year monitoring plan be in place prior to export and with the condition 50,000 acre-feet of water remain in reserve by the valleys for future use.

In Spring Valley, King denied four applications by the water authority because they interfered with existing rights of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the Cleveland Ranch in White Pine County. An attorney for the church testified in hearings before King that groundwater withdrawals would dry up the area's springs. Four other applications in Spring Valley, however, were granted for a total of 61,127 acre-feet.

The Spring Valley pumping would only occur in "staged development," with the first stage allowing eight years' worth of pumping of 38,000 acre-feet. After that, hydrological conditions would be reviewed and would have to be in satisfactory to commence the second stage, which would pump up to 50,000 acre-feet. Another eight years and proof of sound hydrological conditions would allow the third stage of pumping the full allotment of water.

King said the water withdrawals were sustainable with appropriate safeguards. He found the Southern Nevada Water Authority justified the need for the water and the amounts appropriated in the rulings don't limit future growth and development in the impacted basins.

The use of monitoring, mitigation and management plans, along with adaptive management of the pumping regime, he added, are key components to the development of these water resources.

Opponents howled at King's rulings, claiming that pumping and piping the water in the arid region is going to dry up natural springs and creeks and prove disastrous to rural communities along with native wildlife and vegetation.

"The winner in today's ruling is mindless Las Vegas growth, while biodiversity, rural residents and future generations are the clear losers," said Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "There are other, better options for addressing southern Nevada's long-term water needs."

In December, the center delivered more than 21,200 public comments to the state engineer opposing granting of the water rights. If approved in its entirety, the pipeline project would siphon 57 million gallons of water a year away from rural Nevada and Utah, and would cost rate payers more than $15.5 billion, according to a study commissioned by the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

The rulings were issued following a six-week hearing held last fall where 84 witnesses comprising more than 6,500 pages of testimony were heard. More than 800 exhibits were presented, and more than 23,000 public comments were submitted.

Hearings on applications for water rights by the authority in Snake Valley — which straddles the Nevada/Utah border, have been on hold pending resolution in this case. Residents in Utah's western desert, as well elected officials in multiple counties such as Juab, Millard and Salt Lake, have opposed the groundwater pumping plan over concerns that include groundwater depletion and creation of fugitive dust.

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