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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
A cow grazes near a fence in the valley. Snake Valley aquifer water sharing agreement under consideration by Nevada and Utah officials. Monday, Oct. 19, 2009.

SALT LAKE CITY — A coalition of at least two dozen groups has launched an aggressive campaign to urge Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to refrain from signing a controversial water sharing agreement with Nevada until the public has a chance to weigh in.

"It is a huge, huge issue," said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council. "It has been a long, long time since the governor of the state of Utah has had to make such a pivotal decision. Why the rush? Why not wait just a few months?"

Frankel and other representatives of the groups say they have heard Herbert has a self-imposed deadline of April 1 to decide if Utah will sign the groundwater sharing agreement involving Snake Valley that was negotiated by the two states almost four years ago.

Critics of the agreement assert it unfairly tips the balance in favor of Nevada, divvying up 18,000 acre feet of new, unallocated water to Nevada compared to Utah's 36,000 acre-feet of water. Nevada, they say, also wins out in the category of "reserve" water — water no one is quite sure is there — with Utah's neighbor getting 12,000 more acre-feet of water than Utah.

Agreement proponents say that overall — because Utah has already developed substantially more water than Nevada in that valley — the document evenly splits 132,000 acre-feet of water between the two states.

Herbert and others have said that the agreement puts in place environmental protections and safeguards for Utah water users in contrast to litigation that could result in a court ruling that does not. Herbert has also stressed that signing the agreement does not equate to an endorsement of the pipeline, which could be built regardless of any formal agreement in place.

Skeptics, however, say such a water sharing agreement would be monumentally disastrous for Utah and there is no rush to sign off on that destiny.

"This is a decision that will touch all generations to come," said Lynn de Frietas, executive director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake. "At the very least, the people of Utah should be given the opportunity to be heard and the governor should have the wisdom to listen before making a decision."

The groups are hosting a Thursday rally at 7 p.m. in Salt Lake City at 2240 S. 900 East and plan to deliver a letter of concern to Herbert's office on Friday.

Frankel and others say it does not make sense for Herbert to sign the agreement against the backdrop of listening sessions he announced for this summer on Utah's management of its water resources.

"This is one of Utah's most critical water issues and most Utahns are opposed to giving Utah's water to Las Vegas," said Christi Wedig, executive director of Citizens for Dixie's Future, in urging Herbert to allow the opportunity for the public to weigh in.

The water sharing agreement sprang from the desire of the Southern Nevada Water Authority to pump groundwater in the eastern basins of Nevada to be conveyed in a pipeline to Las Vegas.

No pumping of water would physically take place in Utah, but Snake Valley is a shared hydrologic basin between the two states, with snow and rain falling in the mountains of Nevada that is absorbed into an aquifer that Utah residents depend on.

A recent decision by the Bureau of Land Management granted a right-of-way to the water authority for its pipeline, but kept it out of Snake Valley. Herbert said there is nothing to preclude Nevada from developing water in that region, so the agreement remains on the table.

Critics believe any water withdrawals by the water authority in Snake Valley or neighboring Spring Valley are unsustainable and will drop the water table enough to imperil other users and denude the area of vegetation.

If the vegetation dies off and there are no root systems to hold the soils in place, the fear is that dust storms will result and blow into Salt Lake County, adding more problems to air quality.

Over the last several years, Herbert has met with elected officials in Delta, convened meetings in Baker, Nev., which is just over the border, and traveled to Eskdale and Trout Creek to listen to residents' concerns.

The Snake Valley agreement has also been discussed in meetings of the Governor's Council on Balanced Resources and addressed in the legislatively-created Snake Valley Aquifer Advisory Council.

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