A hearing in Henderson on Monday pitted the environmental impacts of finding more water against the economic impacts of not having enough of it, as federal officials gathered input on a controversial plan to keep taps flowing in Southern Nevada.
More than 140 people turned out for the public hearing, and most of those who spoke said they opposed the Southern Nevada Water Authority's proposal to tap groundwater across eastern Nevada.
Hank Vogler made the 300-mile trip from his ranch in north Spring Valley to testify against the project, which he said would kill off one of Nevada's little-known endangered species: the sheepherder.
"I come down here to stick my head in the lion's mouth," he said.
But there was plenty of local opposition, too.
Negative comments outnumbered positive ones by roughly 4-to-1.
Rob Mrowka lives in North Las Vegas and works for the national conservation group Center for Biological Diversity. He said the bureau's analysis shows that the pipeline project would literally change the landscape in parts of rural Nevada by drawing down the water table, killing deep-rooted plants and allowing shallow-rooted desert scrub brush to grow in their place.
Henderson resident Steve Rypka said it was wrong and unsustainable to take water from rural residents and wildlife to fuel an "ever-expanding footprint" in Las Vegas.
"It's just a moral mistake," he said.
While environmentalists, ranchers and fishermen voiced most of the opposition Monday, the handful of supportive comments came almost entirely from the valley business community, namely builders, unions and resort operators.
They argued that the state's economic engine can't recover and grow without a reliable water supply, and they called on the federal Bureau of Land Management to consider the economic impacts of a water shortage in Las Vegas as it reviews the pipeline project.
In June, the bureau released a draft environmental impact statement on the project. The draft report, which took six years to complete, examines the potential effects of the water authority's plan to pump almost 220,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from rural valleys in Clark, Lincoln and White Pine counties.
The review of the project will help determine whether to grant the authority permission to build across federal land.
One acre-foot of water is enough to supply two average Las Vegas homes for a year. The proposed network of wells, pumps and pipelines could deliver water for roughly 440,000 households.
Authority officials insist they have not committed to building the multibillion-dollar project. They simply want to be ready should the need arise.
The agency considers the project a safety net for the Las Vegas Valley, which depends on a single source -- the Colorado River -- for 90 percent of its drinking water supply.
State water regulators will hold a hearing later this year on most of the authority's groundwater applications for the project. The hearing is set to start Sept. 26 and last into November.
The BLM held public hearings this month in Baker, Ely, Elko and Pioche in Nevada and Salt Lake City and Delta in Utah. Those hearings drew a total of about 250 people and 70 comments, none of them in favor of the water authority's plan.
Two more hearings will be held, at 5 p.m. today in the Lincoln County town of Alamo and at 3 p.m. Thursday in the Reno area.
The public has until Oct. 11 to submit comments on the draft environmental impact statement. The roughly 4,000-page document is available in libraries and government offices across Nevada and Utah and on the bureau's website, www.blm.gov/5w5c.
Written comments can be submitted by email to firstname.lastname@example.org; faxed to (775) 861-6689; or mailed to SNWA Project, Bureau of Land Management, Attn: Penny Woods, P.O. Box 12000, Reno, NV 89520.
Bureau officials expect to finish the final draft of the impact study in mid- 2012.
A decision on whether to grant the authority a federal right of way for the pipeline project could come as little as 30 days after the final draft is released.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at email@example.com or 702-383-0350.