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Governor Herbert says he won't change his mind on Snake Valley water sharing agreement

Published: Tuesday, June 18 2013 5:20 p.m. MDT

A cow grazes near a fence in Snake Valley. Earlier this year, Gov. Gary Herbert refused to sign a Snake Valley water-sharing agreement between Utah and Nevada.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert on Tuesday politely but firmly said "no" to a request by the State Water Development Commission to change his mind over not signing a controversial water-sharing agreement with Nevada.

"As I noted in public statements, my decision to not sign the agreement was made as I visited with the people who live in western Utah — those most affected by the outcomes," his letter to the commission says.

The letter was shared with the commission at its Tuesday meeting by Mike Mower, Herbert's deputy chief of staff.

Last month, the commission vented its disappointment with Herbert's decision and told Mower it would like Herbert to reconsider. Many of the legislative members said the agreement was sound, equitable and would keep Utah out of a legal brawl with its neighbor.

But Herbert said the agreement was vehemently objected to by Snake Valley residents as a plan that would ultimately plunge the western desert into a dried-up, barren landscape that would send its dust east to the Wasatch Front.

"I could not in good conscience sign an agreement and impose a solution which were not supported by the individuals whom they will impact the most," he said.

Herbert, who has met with residents in Snake Valley multiple times over the last several years, invited commission members to do the same to "learn firsthand" the concerns they have with the agreement.

At issue is a plan by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to pump ground water from eastern Nevada to convey to the metropolitan Las Vegas area. Before any water can be pumped from Snake Valley — which straddles the border of the two states — the two states have been mandated by Congress to reach an agreement over divvying up water resources.

Teams of negotiators from both states worked several years to come up with a plan that would divide the current known available water and what water may exist under future pumping.

Under the agreement, Nevada would have been able to develop an additional 35,000 acre-feet of water per year in Snake Valley, while Utah would have received 6,000 acre-feet of water a year.

The discrepancy came 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, supporters say, would move the states to an equitable 50-50 split of 132,000 acre-feet.

But critics say if pumping should ever occur, the agreement doomed Snake Valley because it overestimated the availability of water in the region and addressed any impacts too late.

Steve Erickson, the Utah coordinator for the Great Basin Water Network, said Herbert made the right decision.

"He listened to the people of Snake Valley and he listened to the people of Utah," Erickson said. "I think he understood it was premature. … I would emphasize that there is no urgency in moving forward at this time."

Erickson pointed out that the Southern Nevada Water Authority has yet to acquire any water rights in Snake Valley in support of its 300-mile pipeline, and it hasn't officially acquired the necessary right of way from the federal government.

But some commission members remained firm, too, about their sentiment that the plan would have assured some protections.

"The pumping may be in the future, but the time to address the concern is now," said Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem. "I am disappointed that this is not a position that is shared by the executive branch."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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