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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Cattle graze in a field, and a large watering pivit sits in the background. Snake Valley aquifer water sharing agreement under consideration by Nevada and Utah officials. Monday, Oct. 19, 2009. Photo by Scott G Winterton Deseret News.

LAS VEGAS — Water officials in Las Vegas have one crucial approval in hand, but they but still need another — and billions of dollars — before construction can begin on a massive pipeline to supply water from rural and sparsely populated eastern Nevada to the state's glittery cosmopolitan area.

That means it'll be at least a couple of years before shovels hit the ground, John Entsminger, the No. 2 official at the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said Friday.

"When does it start? It's difficult to say," Entsminger said a day after Nevada's top water official granted the agency hard-fought rights to pump up to 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year from four valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties and pipe it south to Las Vegas, home to 2 million people and 40 million tourists a year.

Drought conditions on Lake Mead, where Las Vegas currently gets almost all its drinking water, and decisions by elected officials on the authority board will decide the timing, he said.

"But not having water to supply 2 million people is not an option," Entsminger said. "This project is fundamental to the survival of this community. We have to have options available to secure the water supply under any scenario."

State Engineer Jason King's decision, which increased by more than 25 percent the amount of water available per year to the Las Vegas area, followed lengthy hearings last year.

Water officials in Las Vegas said that with reuse, an acre-foot of water can supply two average homes for a year. They said the water rights granted by King provide a backup — or perhaps a substitute — for Lake Mead.

But it is only part of the puzzle.

"A big piece was getting the water rights," Entsminger said. "Another big piece is getting the right of way from the federal government."

The federal Bureau of Land Management is due to decide by mid-September whether to grant access to a 280-mile pipeline route from the Spring Valley between Ely and the Nevada-Utah state line to Clark County.

Dan Netcher, a BLM official in Ely, said a draft final environmental impact statement is due out in mid-July, allowing time for public comment before a decision is posted. The final decision is subject to federal administrative and court reviews, he said.

Funding for the pipeline also is uncertain, although SNWA chief Pat Mulroy casts the question of obtaining the estimated $3 billion to $15 billion needed in terms of "when," not "if." Mulroy wasn't available this week for comment on King's ruling.

Entsminger noted that court challenges, which are likely, also could delay the project.

"It's going to give people more time to look at the cost of the project, which is skyrocketing," said Susan Lynn, Great Basin Water Network coordinator in Reno. "And it'll give them more time to look at monitoring, mitigation and management. Those are not clear at this point.

"We will pursue our options in court," Lynn vowed.

Simeon Herskovits, lead lawyer for several groups protesting the SNWA project, said pumping the water from beneath the high desert would ruin a place that epitomizes open space in the western United States.

Although the area is sparsely populated, many ranchers in Nevada and Utah depend on the water for their livelihood, said Steve Erickson, a Great Basin Water Network spokesman. The water is also important for the wildlife, habitats and caves in Great Basin National Park, he said.

King granted 15 separate permits for SNWA to pump a combined 61,127 acre-feet of water annually, over time, from Spring Valley. The first stage would allow 38,000 acre-feet over eight years, followed by an additional 12,000 acre-feet over eight years depending on monitoring. The full amount may be granted after that.

"The idea is to go slow," said Bob Conrad, spokesman for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "It's basically a cautious approach to ensure there are no adverse environmental effects."

The 300,000 acre-foot allocation that Nevada gets from Lake Mead is capped by a water agreement involving seven western U.S. states and Mexico, and managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

It would be reduced if lake levels fall below an elevation of 1,075 feet above sea level. Below 1,000 feet, Las Vegas gets no water.

On Friday, the Lake Mead water level was just under 1,131 feet above sea level.