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In our opinion: Nevada judge gets it right in water dispute with Utah

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 17 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

If Nevada is allowed to pump water from beneath fragile deserts, it could harm Utah ranchers and devastate the environment.

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Earlier this year, we worried Utah might not fare well by having to rely on courts to protect its water interests in a proposed plan to pump from beneath valleys that straddle Nevada and Utah. At the time, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert had decided not to sign an agreement with Nevada that would have allowed pumping under certain restrictions and conditions.

We’re still not certain how the issue ultimately will play out in court, but the first step in that process is encouraging. Nevada’s Seventh District Court Senior Judge Robert Estes last week rejected the state’s approval for the project and sent it back for more careful consideration. Among other things, the judge told state engineer Jason King to take a closer look at the groundwater resources in Utah’s Millard and Juab counties and consider how pumping Nevada’s spring valley would affect those levels, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

That is exactly the kind of analysis needed. As Utah officials and environmentalists have been saying for years, the results of such pumping could be disastrous. Utah’s deserts contain fragile plant species that keep the soil in place. This allows ranching to thrive while also sustaining wildlife that feed on the plants. Drain water from beneath these plants and they might die, leading to dust storms and destroying the area’s economy.

By the time such effects become apparent, it might be too late to reverse the process, even if pumping should stop. That point was not lost on the judge, who said the mitigation plan was flawed. He said it should include a specific course of mitigation and a determination on when to take those steps in order to preserve the water rights of people who live in those valleys.

The judge said the state engineer also must ensure the water pumped away could be replenished in a reasonable time. That’s a difficult calculation to make in the midst of a prolonged drought in the area.

That is the heart of the problem. Las Vegas continues to grow, but its ability to sustain life isn’t growing along with the population. The metro area gets nearly all its water from the Hoover Dam reservoir. With rainfall on the decline, the available water won’t go as far as it once did. The same can be said for the arid valleys of rural Nevada and Utah.

In the West, water is a finite resource. That has never been more evident that now when metro areas in Utah, Nevada and Arizona are among the nation’s fastest growing and a drought has reduced the flow. If those cities pull water from sensitive sources, the resulting environmental damage could be severe enough to force people away.

Many observers expect Nevada to appeal this decision. We hope courts will continue to take the rights of Utah’s ranchers and other landowners into account. Better yet, we hope Nevada will change course and look elsewhere to meet its water needs.

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