Gov. Gary Herbert won't sign Snake Valley water-sharing agreement

Published: Wednesday, April 3 2013 1:30 p.m. MDT

Gov. Gary Herbert shakes hands with Pete Shields, left, and Grant Nielson prior to a meeting of concerned citizens in Delta on Friday, Sept. 25, 2009. For years, Utah and Nevada have negotiated over the division of water from an aquifer in Snake Valley, which straddles the border and is home to small ranching and farming communities.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Wednesday he won't sign a controversial water-sharing agreement with Nevada, earning praise from critics of the proposal who said it would imperil the residents and landscapes of rural Snake Valley.

"At the end of the day, when it comes down to those people who have the most to lose — it's their water, their lifestyle, their livelihood — I can't in good conscience sign the agreement," he said. "It's that simple."

Herbert added his decision, despite the threat of any lawsuit coming from Utah's neighbor, was made as he spent time visiting with residents of the western desert communities.

"The people out in the west desert, in Juab, Millard and Tooele counties, the county commissioners don't want it, the people don't want it," he said. "Estimates are 80 percent of the people don't want it."

A top Nevada official said the state is disappointed.

"This agreement was negotiated over many years and in good faith," said Leo Drozdoff, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "We are disappointed by this decision and are evaluating all of our options in light of Gov. Herbert's decision."

Closer to home, the Utah reaction was universally ecstatic.

Millard County Commissioner Daron Smith said he is glad Herbert took local concerns to heart.

"We have to give the governor all the credit in the world for listening to local folks and listening to local elected officials," he said. "We know he really wrestled over the issue."

Herbert's refusal to sign comes nearly four years after the agreement was drafted, a decision put in limbo because of challenges that had to be settled by the Nevada courts, protests over water rights and a federal agency completing an environmental analysis.

The two states have negotiated for years over the division of water from an aquifer in Snake Valley, which straddles the border and is home to small ranching and farming communities.

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

Utah has been under pressure to sign the agreement, with threats of a lawsuit voiced from Nevada quarters.

Herbert said he is not worried about winding up in court over the lack of agreement with Nevada.

"I'm not worried about a lawsuit at all," he said. "If they bring that, we will address it when the time comes."

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 trying to shore up alternative water supplies to support the desert metropolis by proposing a 300-mile pipeline to convey the water.

On Wednesday, the water district issued a statement panning Herbert's "unprecedented" decision.

"We are disappointed that Gov. Herbert has unilaterally chosen not to comply with a congressional directive to both his state and Nevada," the statement said, adding that the states' negotiating teams spent three years determining the most equitable way to divide Snake Valley's groundwater resources.

The authority said Herbert's decision is a smack at the results of a $6 million study authorized by Congress to study the region's water resources.

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