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Utah groups join legal challenge to Nevada groundwater pumping plan

Published: Monday, April 23 2012 3:38 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Multiple Utah groups and counties are joining some of their Nevada neighbors in a legal challenge to a decision granting water rights for a controversial groundwater pumping plan.

The March decision by Nevada State Engineer Jason King to allow up to 86,000 acre-feet of water to be pumped from eastern Nevada for delivery to Las Vegas will now move to state district court for review of the merits of King's decision.

More than 300 groups are seeking to overturn those rulings in the latest legal donnybrook over the effort to develop water resources in the most arid state in the nation.

“We appealed this decision because it would set a precedent that one big city and a few narrow business interests can trample over the economic and environmental future of many rural communities and huge areas of the country," said Susan Lynn, coordinator with the Great Basin Water Network.

"The export of this region’s scarce water by (the Southern Nevada Water Authority) would devastate local economies, communities, and the environment of eastern Nevada and western Utah."

The Monday appeal, led by White Pine County, Nev., and the Great Basin Water Network, includes signatories such as Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, the Utah Rivers Council and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. It follows a Friday appeal filed by the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, the Shoshone Tribe and Duckwater Shoshone Tribe.

“I fear Mr. King’s decision will literally wipe out our tribe, so of course we are filing an appeal. We are determined to fight this disastrous project so long as decision-makers keep it alive. We have no other choice,” stated Ed Naranjo, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation.

King granted water rights to SNWA for pumping in four hydrologic basins: Spring, Dry Lake, Delamar and Cave valleys. Hearings for Snake Valley, a basin that straddles the Nevada/Utah border, have yet to be held. The authority is proposing to use a number of wells and to pump water through a $3.5 billion, 300-mile pipeline to help the Las Vegas area shore up future water needs.

King said the ground water pumping plan put forth by SNWA is sustainable, with appropriate safeguards in place. As a condition of granting certain water rights, for example, 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 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.

Critics assailed King's reasoning, saying it amounts to a pump first and ask questions later approach that will result in irreversible environmental consequences.

"The big concern for people in Utah is that these Nevada valleys are connected to the  Utah valleys," said the network's Steve Erickson. "If you take the water out of those Nevada basins, you will be taking it out of Snake Valley as well."

Simeon Herskovits, an attorney representing White Pine County and the network, said there are five concerns with King's decision, among them the sanction of a large-scale project that threatens existing water rights. In addition, he said the rulings rely on a "woefully inadequate monitoring and mitigation plan" that fails to contemplate sound science.

“We believe the rulings must be challenged and are confident of the grounds for appeal,” Herskovits said.

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

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