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Utah counties renew objections to Snake Valley water plan

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 30 2012 11:25 a.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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DELTA — Millard County is leading a renewed charge against a proposed Snake Valley water sharing agreement with Nevada, stoked by a Monday report that says while not perfect, the agreement is a "reasonable" alternative to a lawsuit between the states.

The report, released by Gov. Gary Herbert's office and crafted by three environmental and water attorneys, said splitting groundwater resources between Nevada and Utah would avert a likely U.S. Supreme Court decision in the dispute, which could put Utah in an even worse position.

A hand-delivered letter to Herbert's office penned by the Millard County Board of Commissioners says the so-called "equitable" split of water is a farce because it ignores decades of historical water use in Utah to the peril of Snake Valley residents.

"Once that split takes effect, the groundwater that is rightfully and fairly Utah's birthright is forever forfeited, and Millard County will forever bear the brunt of that injustice," the letter reads. "Please do not let this be Utah's legacy."

The two states have been wrangling over the water division in an aquifer in Snake Valley, which straddles the border and is home to small ranching and farming communities.

A congressional act mandates that states reach agreement on water resources found in any shared basin, or absent that, the U.S. Supreme Court makes the decision.

Water availability in the mostly arid region has been elevated to an urgent importance given a plan by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to pump groundwater from the eastern basins of Nevada for delivery to Las Vegas.

Facing drought and dwindling levels at Lake Mead — its chief water supply — the authority is shoring up alternative water supplies to support the desert metropolis by proposing a 300-mile pipeline to convey pumped groundwater to the Las Vegas metro area.

The pipeline, billed as a safety net by the authority, has been met with stiff resistance by multiple Utah counties because of concerns that any withdrawals — even from adjacent valleys — would be unsustainable.

Under a draft agreement proposing to divide the water, signed by Nevada but pending in Utah, Nevada would get to develop an additional 35,000 acre-feet of water per year in Snake Valley, while Utah would get 6,000 acre feet of water a year.

The discrepancy comes from the fact that Utah has already tapped the bulk of water resources in the valley — 55,000 acre-feet to Nevada's 12,000 acre-feet — and the agreement, the new report says, moves the states to a equitable 50/50 split.

Millard County's commissioners said while seemingly "fair and innocuous" at first glance, the split disastrously ignores Utah's historic use of anywhere from 76 to 84 percent of the available groundwater in Snake Valley for municipal and irrigation use and domestic groundwater systems.

"A 50/50 overall split is an unrealistic and potentially harmful measure in any event, because again, the geographical reality is that the vast majority of natural, agricultural and municipal groundwater utilization of Snake Valley's groundwater budget has long since been established on the Utah side of Snake Valley," the letter states. "Again, something would have to give on the Utah side."

The counties contend too that Utah doesn’t have to be forced into signing the agreement over fear of a U.S. Supreme Court battle because the agreement wrongly ignores impacts to one overall hydrologic flow system.

"A single interstate basin cannot be properly divided in a vacuum."

Herbert has asked for the attorneys' letter to be reviewed by the state Water Development Commission at its November meeting.

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

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