RENO, Nev. — Crucial hearings to help determine whether billions of gallons of water will be pumped out of aquifers beneath northern Nevada and Utah to fill the thirsty taps of arid Las Vegas are still months away.

But a pre-hearing last week shows the legal battle over the controversial 285-mile-long pipeline project with a price tag as high as $3.5 billion promises to be a lengthy and contentious one.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority alone plans testimony from more than two dozen witnesses over about three weeks' time to present its case in support of winning the necessary water rights for the project — something it once had in hand but lost a year ago when the Nevada Supreme Court sent the matter back to the state water engineer for the new round of hearings beginning in September.

If the authority secures approval of all the rights it is seeking, the pipeline could end up carrying as much as 65 billion gallons of water from the north to the south on an annual basis. Daily flows would total up to 178 million gallons under that scenario — enough to cover an area the size of nearly 500 football fields with a new foot of water each day.

That's assuming the conflicting interests in the north and south can agree on the length of a day — something the Nevada Division of Water Resources' chief hearing officer wasn't taking for granted at the preconference meeting in a mock courtroom at the National Judicial College on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno.

"You are all lawyers," Susan Joseph-Taylor said. "You are going to argue what a day means."

They did, for about 10 minutes, before agreeing that a "day" in the context of giving adequate notice on the filing of certain evidence didn't necessarily mean 24 hours. Rather, they decided that a party would serve such notice before the close of business on the previous day.

The 65 billion gallons of water — 200,000 acre feet — would be enough to support 400,000 households a year. However, SNWA officials believe it's more realistic to expect approval of about 120,000 acre feet. An acre foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre one foot deep.

SNWA's chief opponent is the Great Basin Water Network, an alliance of mostly conservationists and rural leaders that opposes tapping any of the groundwater in the north to fuel more growth in southern Nevada.

Other critics who will be represented at the fall hearings include the LDS Church, three tribes and a pair of counties each in Nevada and Utah. With the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and others also in the mix, just organizing the evidence with coherent exhibit numbers can be difficult.

Joseph-Taylor opted for a series of acronyms for each party. For example, the water authority's exhibits will be "SNWA#1, SNWA#2, SNWA#3... etc." The Great Basin Water Network will be "GBWN." Lawyers for the LDS Church requested and received "COPB" for Corporation of Presiding Bishops.

Joseph-Taylor initially suggested Utah's Juab County and Millard counties be combined since they are being represented by the same lawyers.

"Utah will be UTAH," she said before they told her they preferred JUAB and MILL. She consented and clarified, "Utah will not be UTAH."

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Hank Vogler, an outspoken rancher from Ely who is a member of the Nevada Wildlife Commission, fears the pipeline would mean an end to his sheep business but doubts anyone can stop the project given the water authority's legal arsenal.

"Some of us are going to be collateral damage and be taken out by 1,000 paper cuts," Vogler said. He said his exhibits will feature the acronym NMSC — "Need-More-Sheep Company."

The parties will present their cases during hearings at the Nevada Legislature in Carson City each week day from Sept. 26 to Oct. 14, and then again from Oct. 31 to Nov. 18.

A special hearing for public comment is scheduled Oct. 7. The state water engineer's office will accept written comment through Dec. 2.