Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative commission wants Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to reconsider his decision to shun signing a controversial water sharing agreement with Nevada, with one member describing his action as a "colossal mistake."
The State Water Development Commission voted Tuesday to send a letter to Herbert asking him to reconsider on the Snake Valley agreement, and members want a response from the governor in time for the commission's next meeting.
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said he viewed the agreement as a logical one that would have protected Utah interests. For Herbert not to sign, "it appears to be, in my humble opinion, a colossal mistake. I do not see the downside in this," he said.
Commission members received a detailed anthology on the water controversy from Warren Peterson, one of a trio of water law attorneys consulted by Herbert about the merits of the agreement. In their report to the governor, the attorneys said the agreement, while not perfect, protected Utah interests and would keep it out of a lawsuit with Nevada.
In the meeting Tuesday, Peterson blamed the news media for distorting the facts about the provisions of the agreement and whipping up a frenzy of opposition by failing to do its homework.
"Public dialogue was ill-founded and driven by the media," he said.
What everyone missed, Peterson stressed, is that the first tier of the agreement gave a bow to the existing water use and protected it by precluding any withdrawals by Nevada if those uses were impaired in any way.
"Frankly, I did not agree with (Herbert's) decision," he said.
In April, the governor announced he would not sign the agreement, surprising critics who feared he would sacrifice Utah interests at the altar of Nevada's threats. Herbert said he could not impose a solution from Salt Lake City that the residents most affected did not support.
The proposed water withdrawals in Snake Valley — a basin that dissects the border of the two states — are part of a larger groundwater pumping plan by the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
The agency in charge of delivering water to Las Vegas and its outlying communities wants to build a 300-mile pipeline as a way to shore up its water supply in the face of a dwindling Lake Mead.
Fed by the Colorado River, Lake Mead's water levels have drastically shrunk in the face of drought, forcing the authority to embark on expensive and elaborate ways to keep water flowing to its users.
A congressional act mandates the two states reach an agreement on a division of water resources in the basin before any withdrawals begin. Negotiated for several years, the agreement was signed by Nevada and languished on Herbert's desk until his decision last month.
Although the agreement put in place environmental protections, including a $3 million mitigation fund for damage to users and delayed the pipeline until 2019, critics still panned the proposal. They asserted it gave away Utah water and shortchanged users in Utah's western desert.
While no pumping would have occurred in Utah, opponents said any drawing down of the aquifer on the Nevada side would leave Snake Valley even drier than it already is.
The water authority has always maintained it is free to develop its water resources in its own state for the benefit of Nevada, and if Utah were in the same situation, its pursuit of those resources would be just as vigorous.
For Ron Thompson, commission member and manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, that was the rub, and Utah appears hypocritical, he said.
Nevada, the driest state in the nation, receives the least amount of water in a multistate compact that divides the resources of the Colorado River. When it wanted to negotiate with the other states for receiving a larger share, Utah was among those states that instead encouraged it to seek development of the resources within its own borders, he said.
"We're no longer looked at as a state that deals with other states in good faith," Thompson said.
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