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Utahns oppose Las Vegas' Snake Valley water grab

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Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Aug 29, 2011 05:00 AM

In August 2009, the state of Utah sacrificed its western flank in return for development opportunities in its southern bounds. At least, that's the way many residents in Western Utah's Snake Valley perceive a water agreement the state inked with Nevada. In that deal, Nevada received rights to the majority of available groundwater in the 100-mile long Snake Valley -- the last remaining piece in a Las Vegas water buyup by Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager Patricia Mulroy. In return, Utah got Mulroy's promise not to interfere with its plans to develop a pipeline of its own, from Lake Powell to the booming St. George area.

Snake Valley MustangsMatt Jenkins outlined this deal, and its possible impacts in an HCN story at the time. Now, Utahns worried about the pipeline's impacts on their state's economy and environment are speaking out against the entire water project, which runs from western Utah and through seven valleys in eastern Nevada, sucking groundwater up from under each one and taking it to Vegas.

In late July, the pipeline proposal controversy flared up again, when the Bureau of Land Management released a draft statement on the environmental impacts of the project, which would cross public land. Public hearings, comments, and debates on the pipeline have been happening across Utah for the past few weeks, with many of the states' residents, even those not directly impacted, voicing their opposition of what they see as a water grab. The BLM has extended its comment period an extra month, to Oct. 11, on account of requests from the plan's critics. And a new study suggests the pipeline might cost five times as much as Nevada water officials originally estimated.

The BLM's draft EIS determined the pipeline project's drawdown of aquifers could dry out soils in the valleys above the aquifers. Other effects of taking away that groundwater included changing plant communities as shallow-rooted plants would die off and the potential elimination of small and large springs and the wildlife that depend on them. Threatened and endangered birds and mammals might also suffer, and less water availability could hurt irrigated agriculture and development in the area.

The agency also noted the negative affects aquifer drawdown would have on Snake Valley and neighboring Spring Valley, Nev. residents, the Deseret News reported:

'The onset of groundwater pumping would cause increasing distress for many residents of the rural area, stemming from their perceptions of risks to the local environment and concern for detrimental long-term effects on health, quality of life and livelihoods and those of successive generations,' the summary reads. 'For some residents, particularly in Snake and Spring valleys, personal distress would stem from the risk of loss of a valued rural way of life.'

Nevada water authority officials say the high cost estimates are unlikely and stem from a "worst case scenario" analysis.

It's not just Utah residents who oppose the pipeline plan. The water to quench Las Vegas' growing thirst would also come from aquifers underneath valleys in rural eastern Nevada, and their agriculture, animals, species and air quality will also be affected. The BLM has also been holding hearings about their EIS in those Nevada valleys and other parts of the state.

After public comments are finished, the Bureau of Land Management will decide whether or not to grant Mulroy's water authority rights of way to build the pipelines. The plan hinges on those rights. But as we've reported before, Mulroy is a persistent and savvy water warrior. Even if the BLM turns her down, she'll likely have another scheme for slaking Sin City's thirst.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.

Image of Snake Valley courtesy Flickr user Elizabeth Foote.

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