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.
"Yet, despite this overwhelming body of scientific evidence and legally binding safeguards, Gov. Herbert has elected to withdraw from the agreement. In the coming days and weeks, we will evaluate our options to address this unprecedented action,” according to the statement.
The authority's pipeline plans have long been met with resistance from most Utahns, who have said any water withdrawals — even in adjacent valleys — would be unsustainable.
In recent weeks, Herbert was harshly criticized by several groups that believed he was poised to sign the agreement, which has been viewed as a component of the massive groundwater pumping proposal in the region.
On Wednesday, his decision — a surprise to some — was celebrated.
"This is a courageous decision and the right decision," said Steve Erickson with the Great Basin Water Network. "This gives us some opportunity to look at the dynamics of water in the West from a new frame of reference."
Other critics such as the Utah Rivers Council and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment — part of coalition that delivered a letter to Herbert on Friday urging the agreement be nixed — also had praise.
“The Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment sincerely and without reservation thank the governor for taking this action to protect the health of Utah residents. He has absolutely done the right thing," said Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
Although a Bureau of Land Management decision keeps the pipeline out of Snake Valley for now, Herbert has said it would be foolish to believe the water authority will not want to develop that resource at some point in the future.
Under the proposed agreement, no pumping would have occurred in Utah, but the critics have asserted that any drawing down of the aquifer on the Nevada side would leave Snake Valley even drier than it already is.
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, under the agreement.
The discrepancy came from the fact 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 said, would move the states to a equitable 50-50 split of 132,000 acre-feet between the two states.
Erickson said the governor's refusal to sign the agreement should be viewed as a way to embrace a larger conversation about water usage in the West and work with Nevada on different solutions to shortages.
"We want to work with the governor to help Las Vegas find a smarter or a more sustainable water future and partner with them in working for the same goal in the entire Mountain West and the Colorado River Basin," he said
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