Does meeting mean Gov. Gary Herbert will sign controversial water deal?

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 28 2012 10:55 a.m. MST

Water flows from a spring in the Snake Valley. A Snake Valley aquifer water sharing agreement is under consideration by Nevada and Utah officials. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Water flows from a spring in the Snake Valley. A Snake Valley aquifer water sharing agreement is under consideration by Nevada and Utah officials. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert met Tuesday with members of the Millard County Commission, a conciliatory move critics fear may be Herbert's last before he signs a controversial water-sharing agreement with Nevada.

The meeting happened one day after the Snake Valley Aquifer Advisory Council met in Millard County and unanimously voted to urge Herbert to hold off on the signing the groundwater division agreement — at least a little bit longer.

The council wants Herbert to wait until the Bureau of Land Management issues its final decision on a right of way application for a pipeline that would tap groundwater in eastern Nevada basins for delivery to the Las Vegas metropolitan area.

A cow grazes near a fence in the Snake Valley Oct. 19, 2009. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) A cow grazes near a fence in the Snake Valley Oct. 19, 2009. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

"We just don't want any surprises," said Don Anderson, a Juab County resident who sits on the council. "The BLM (document) is just another piece of the puzzle."

Millard County has been vehemently and steadfastly opposed to the water-sharing agreement, saying it is tipped in Nevada's favor and any draw down on the aquifer on the Nevada side will hurt ranchers and farmers in Utah.

Utah has been under pressure by Nevada to sign the agreement — pressure that Herbert's office said is ramping up given that the agreement has been in limbo for nearly three years, Anderson said.

"Nevada was ready to sign this thing three years ago because it is a winning document for them," Anderson said. "Meanwhile, it has taken us three years to sit around and scratch our heads and wonder if it is a fair agreement because we aren't sure."

Ally Isom, Herbert's spokeswoman, said the governor won't make a decision on the agreement until January, and stressed that signing the agreement does not mean an endorsement of the pipeline or a signal that it will come.

"The point the governor wants everyone in this conversation to understand is whether or not Utah signs the agreement, it has no bearing on whether Nevada builds a pipeline in Spring Valley," she said. "Our decision does not ultimately impact whether Nevada builds a pipeline."

She added that the meeting with Millard County officials was a chance for Herbert to hear local residents' concerns over the proposed pipeline.

"It is clearly an emotional issue and a divisive issue for those impacted by the decision," she said.

Late last month, a trio of water attorneys consulted by Herbert's office issued a report in which they said the agreement, while not perfect, is better than a protracted legal battle between the two states over how the groundwater would be divided.

Utah negotiators have long said they fear a U.S. Supreme Court decision settling the dispute could leave Utah in a much worse position absent protections afforded by the agreement.

"I suppose the agreement is better than not having an agreement," Anderson said, "but my fear is what will happen once they have the water in hand."

The so-called Snake Valley water-sharing plan has been dogged by Utah controversy and opposition since it was first envisioned by the Southern Nevada Water Authority decades ago.

Facing a dwindling Lake Mead, which supplies the bulk of water to the Las Vegas area, the water authority began looking for alternative sources, settling on five valleys in sparsely populated eastern Nevada. One of those valleys, Snake Valley, occupies both Utah and Nevada, but the aquifer is fed by snow in the mountains of Nevada.

Utah has developed the overwhelming majority of water in the area — 55,000 acre-feet to Nevada's 12,000 acre-feet — and the authority now wants to tap its share to bolster its own water supplies.

Under the pending agreement, Utah would get to develop an additional 6,000 acre-feet of water per year, while Nevada would get 35,000 acre-feet of water per year.

The attorneys consulted by Herbert said under that scenario, Nevada would "catch up" to the point where there is a 50/50 split, but only if sufficient water is available.

Anderson said that is a key hiccup for many critics because no one is quite sure what "sufficient" will mean at the end of the day, and the impacts may be realized too little, too late.

"Once the Southern Nevada Water Authority is allocated whatever their share of water will be and it's in the pipeline, it will be harder to enforce the environmental monitoring aspect of this agreement," he said.

Critics fear pumping the aquifer will render Snake Valley inhabitable, drying up water that provides the livelihood for ranches, farms and residents of the western desert region. Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon has also weighed in against the water-sharing plan, fearing wind-blown dust from the west desert of Utah will add to the Wasatch Front's air pollution problems.

Millard County and other critics, too, take no solace in the BLM's right of way route that keeps the water authority out of Snake Valley because they believe tapping the water in the adjacent valley will have outcomes that are just as disastrous.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which operates an extensive cattle ranch in that adjacent valley, Spring Valley, has strenuously fought the water authority's efforts to tap water there because of concerns of what it would do to its Cleveland-Rogers Ranch.

An attorney hired by the church to fight water right applications sought by the authority in Spring Valley said taking the groundwater would severely hinder its ranching operation.

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