In our opinion: Pumping desert water

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 18 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

A cow grazes near a fence in Snake valley.

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The controversy over whether Nevada draws water from beneath fragile desert valleys in Utah offers few ideal alternatives.

The Bureau of Land Management earlier this year issued a final environmental impact statement that allows Nevada to pump water from beneath Spring Valley, but it's unclear whether that would eventually affect water beneath adjacent Snake Valley, part of which is in Utah. Meanwhile, the Southern Nevada Water Authority holds water rights applications that are pending on 50,679 acre feet below Snake Valley.

The best way to protect Utah's interests in this long struggle may be to sign an agreement between the two states that at least offers important protections for Utah. Without an agreement, Utah would have to use the courts as a remedy for any environmental degradation that arises as a result of pumping. This would be a difficult and uncertain remedy, given that the state would have to prove it has standing and that the environmental problems weren't the result of some other factor.

We're not certain whether an agreement drafted by representatives of the two states and signed already by Nevada is the best it could be. Neither is Gov. Gary Herbert, who told us last week he hadn't decided whether to sign. But an agreement that provides for a clear mechanism to shut down pumps as soon as any environmental degradation is determined is much better than having no agreement at all, allowing pumping to continue until a court ordered otherwise.

Herbert said the main goals should be to protect Utah's water, the water rights that exist in the Snake Valley and the environment. That would be difficult without an agreement, and it may not be possible to gain Nevada's approval of anything stricter, given that it may be able to begin pumping from Spring Valley without an agreement.

The issue concerns the future water needs of the rapidly growing Las Vegas area. We sympathize with that need, given that Utah also is a rapidly growing arid state. The problem, however, is that no one can be certain of the impacts from pumping water beneath already arid deserts. Fragile plant species keep soil in place, allowing ranching to thrive while also sustaining wildlife. Some scientific studies suggest draining water from beneath these areas would kill that plant life, leading to dust storms that destroy the area's economy.

The Snake Valley is a hydrologic basin that straddles both states. The proposed agreement includes monitoring and provides funding for mitigation of any environmental problems. It would delay any pumping for 10 years, but it would allow Nevada to extract much more water from the area than it currently does, putting the total at roughly 50-50 between the two states.

The concern, of course, is that nature may not provide any second chances to make things right. If the pumping causes environmental problems, those may not become evident until damage has been done. Once the water is gone, there is no putting it back.

But that concern exists with or without an agreement. An agreement would at least provide for monitoring and remedies.

We understand Nevada wants to develop diverse water supplies for its largest metropolitan area. We wish it would find sources that are less environmentally questionable.

Unfortunately, wishes don't carry the weight of the established rights Nevada owns. Utah's governor may have little choice but to sign the agreement as the best possible way to give the state some stake in what happens beneath the Snake Valley.

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