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Report: Snake Valley water agreement better than lawsuits

Published: Monday, Oct. 29 2012 5:01 p.m. MDT

A cow grazes near a fence in Snake valley. Alternative F claims there will be no groundwater development in Snake Valley and that more water will be taken from Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar Valleys in Nevada to make up the difference.

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SALT LAKE CITY — A trio of water attorneys say the proposed Snake Valley groundwater sharing agreement between Nevada and Utah is not perfect by any means, but it is a reasonable and preferred alternative to a protracted lawsuit between the two states.

Released by Gov. Gary Herbert's office Monday, the report by attorneys Steven E. Clyde, Dallin W. Jensen and Warren H. Peterson said signing the water sharing and monitoring agreements is in the best interests of residents of both Utah and Nevada.

"The agreements, while not perfect, provide a framework to protect the interests of water users and citizens as a whole in each state and provide a process to address adverse impacts early on if detected to avoid significant harm to anyone," the report states.

The review does not constitute an official legal opinion or represent Utah's view, the attorneys stressed, but is offered as "perspective" given their years of practice in the environmental and water law arena.

Snake Valley is a hydrologic basin that occupies both Nevada and Utah and supports ranching, farming and small communities. It is home to the Great Basin National Park and an aquifer the Southern Nevada Water Authority wants to tap to help augment water supplies in the Las Vegas metro area.

Most of the water falls as snow in the mountains, which through spring runoff is delivered to the valley and helps to fill the aquifer.

Opponents to the groundwater pumping and piping plan fear tapping the water will compromise already scarce supplies and dry up the desert, creating wind-blown dust storms that will migrate as far as Salt Lake County. Those groups — including Native American Indian tribes, environmental organizations and several Utah counties, such as Salt Lake, Juab and Millard — have flayed the agreement, saying it shortchanges Utah residents in favor of Nevada interests.

Utah already has developed most of the groundwater in the valley — 55,000 acre feet to Nevada's 12,000 acre feet — and Nevada water officials say they are now entitled to their share.

Under the pending agreement, Utah would get to develop an additional 6,000 acre feet of water per year, while Nevada would get 35,000 acre feet of water per year.

The attorneys, in their report, say the agreement would allow Nevada to "catch up," and eventually the states would have an equal 50-50 division, but only if sufficient groundwater is available.

Nevada officials already have signed the agreement, but Utah has let it simmer in limbo pending legal challenges to the water authority's applications to develop the groundwater.

The agreement delays any withdrawals of the Snake Valley aquifer by the water authority for 10 years and provides for mitigation of any environmental impacts related to air quality or harm to threatened or sensitive species.

"The agreements protect Nevada and Utah's right and ability to develop future groundwater supplies, but only if further development can be done on a sustainable basis while protecting existing water users and the environment," the attorneys' report says.

Absent such an agreement, the water attorneys say Nevada, with its desperate need for water, may simply appropriate what remains in the Snake Valley groundwater system, ignoring Utah's water needs in the future. Nevada, too, would probably initiate action to be determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, the attorneys added, and Utah may end up in a less favorable position.

"The result would simply be the allocation of the water without imposing or implementing any of the protections included in the Snake Valley agreement," the review said.

The governor's office has asked members of state Water Development Commission to review the attorneys' report at its next meeting in November, but there's no word yet on if this means the agreement will get Herbert's official blessing.

His spokeswoman, Ally Isom, said the governor is "determined to protect every drop of Utah's water."

"This is about doing what is in the best long-term interests for the state of Utah," Isom said.

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

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