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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.

Craig Rowe
Craig Rowe Subscriber
Aug 29, 2011 09:30 AM
This is far from the only water access plan Ms. Mulroy has planned. Why not plan around the water supply as opposed to growing and hoping for the best? Of course, why change 150 years of water planning success now?
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch Subscriber
Aug 30, 2011 02:20 PM
The BLM does not have discretion NOT to grant the right-of-way. Thanks to legislation sponsored by Harry Reid, the ROW is mandated.
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch Subscriber
Aug 30, 2011 02:25 PM

From PL 108-424:

(b) Rights-of-Way-
(1) IN GENERAL- Notwithstanding sections 202 and 503 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (43 U.S.C. 1711, 1763), and subject to valid and existing rights, the Secretary shall grant to the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the LincolnCounty Water District nonexclusive rights-of-way to Federal land in LincolnCounty and Clark County , Nevada, for any roads, wells, well fields, pipes, pipelines, pump stations, storage facilities, or other facilities and systems that are necessary for the construction and operation of a water conveyance system, as depicted on the map.
 (2) APPLICABLE LAW- A right-of-way granted under paragraph (1) shall be granted in perpetuity and shall not require the payment of rental.
 (3) COMPLIANCE WITH NEPA- Before granting a right-of-way under paragraph (1), the Secretary shall comply with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.), including the identification and consideration of potential impacts to fish and wildlife resources and habitat.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Aug 30, 2011 02:26 PM
Janine -- I don't think I realized that. Can you clarify? I thought the ROW was contingent upon the NEPA process under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. Is this a special case?
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch Subscriber
Aug 30, 2011 02:39 PM
The NEPA process is pretty much a sham--an expensive one. The BLM is doing an EIS, but it will basically be a "read it & weep" document, because as you see in the bill language, Interior SHALL grant the ROW. The only discretion BLM will have will come later, regarding alternative sites for segments of the PL, say. They will probably do environmental assessments, "tiered" to this programmatic EIS. But they cannot choose the no-action alternative. While it is probably better to know the impacts than not, even if the project is mandated, it is also a pretty cynical exercise. One can only hope that SNWA can't scrape up the billions needed. This is a complete giveaway of public land(note also no rent required) for an obscene purpose.
Steve  Erickson
Steve Erickson
Aug 30, 2011 04:17 PM
Thanks for a fine article pointing out the overwhelming opposition in Utah to the Las Vegas "Water Grab". However, Utah Governor Gary Herbert has NOT signed the Agreement with Nevada on the management of the Snake Valley groundwater. He came close to doing so in early January, 2010, but opposition, especially from the Millard County Commissioners, caused him to reconsider long enough to be saved from a huge mistake by the successful Great Basin Water Network lawsuit. This is important to note, as there are indications that Herbert is once again considering signing the deal. HCN readers may want to call or email the Governor to help us help him find the will not to capitulate.

The conflict between NEPA and LCRDA is real, but even more complex than Jane describes, as NEPA does require that a No Action Alternative be considered. (The DEIS also considers two alternatives that would not allow a right of way into White Pine County or Snake Valley.) Of course, agencies rarely if ever choose No Action, and the process may well prove to be papering over a decision already made. But it is likely that the courts will have to sort out the conflict between the two statutes. Interestingly, LCRDA also requires that the Utah and Nevada have an agreement on the shared aquifer before any pumping and water export can occur. It is a matter of contention over whether that shared groundwater is stricly within Snake Valley, since groundwater from Spring Valley flows into Snake. This too may become a question for the courts to resolve.
Steve Erickson, Utah Coordinator
Great Basin Water Network
Salt Lake City
Jeffrey Mendenhall
Jeffrey Mendenhall Subscriber
Feb 18, 2013 11:30 AM
Native peoples of the arid Southwest have both a reverence for the stark beauty of THEIR lands, and the fierce balance of Nature which favors the land and its inhabitants over ANY attempt to exploit one creature, essential to the eco-system, over another. The great chiefs of several tribes/nations consistently relate their wisdom, which tells us we are all related in a web of Creation, and as Black Elk famously said, "All are One."

Great Anglo cities in the middle of the desert do not belong there. They cannot survive without stealing vast acre-feet of water from the great rivers and aquifers of the Southwest. I submit that any such city or developed area which is not self-supporting in re. water rights must wither on its own vine. The multi-billion dollar projects to bring water to arid and semi-arid cities must cease, and be reversed. I grew up in LA, another large city only possible by it's theft of water from the eastern Sierra, and the Owens Valley. We must stop the water grab that fuels even further land grabs. Our deserts are precious and beautiful.

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