Critics of pipeline project to flood crucial meeting

At the north end of the pipe, residents are crowding into community centers and renting school buses for the trip down.

At the south end, officials are bracing for a crowd that could overwhelm their meeting room.

So go the preparations for Thursday's referendum on the future of a plan to tap billions of gallons of groundwater from across eastern Nevada and pump it to Las Vegas.

At the request of Southern Nevada Water Authority chief Pat Mulroy, the agency's board will cast an "up-or-down vote" on whether to continue seeking permits and environmental approvals for the project.

Pipeline opponents plan to be there in force, including a contingent from Snake Valley, the 2,760-square-mile groundwater basin that straddles the Nevada-Utah border and lies at the northeastern end of the authority's proposed pipeline.

Mulroy said she called for the vote because she wants board members to reaffirm their support for the project amid increasing opposition.

She knows the critics will pack the room.

"We're ready for it," Mulroy said. "I think all the board members know this could be a long meeting."

If it is built, the proposed network of pipes, pumps and reservoirs could stretch about 300 miles and supply Las Vegas with 134,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year, enough for almost 270,000 homes.

The project is expected to cost between $2 billion and $3.5 billion, according to authority estimates now several years old.

Last Thursday night, several dozen Snake Valley residents gathered at the community center in the Nevada border town of Baker to discuss their plan of attack for this week.

The strategy meeting was organized by White Pine County Commissioner Gary Perea, who has lived in Snake Valley for 32 years.

He said the group that turned out included a mix of newcomers to the valley and people whose roots there go back three or four generations.

He expects 50 to 75 people from the area to make the 300-mile trip south for this Thursday's meeting.

To accommodate some of them, Perea is making arrangements with the White Pine County School District to rent one of the buses the high school uses for away games.

Superintendent Bob Dolezal said they get requests like that from time to time, usually from scout troops and church groups.

With no local transit company to speak of, the district usually tries to help out when it can.

"It's a you-can't-get-there-from-here kind of thing," Dolezal said.

North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck, who chairs the water authority board, said she is a little worried that the room where the board meets might not have space for everyone.

"There are partitions. We're going to make it as big as we can make it," Buck said.

There will be a sign-up sheet for those who want to address the board. People representing the same group will be asked to pick someone to speak to limit repetition.

"I'll try to keep things orderly," Buck said. "I don't think it will be contentious. Passionate, yes. It won't be contentious, at least not from our end."

On Wednesday, the White Pine Commission unanimously approved a resolution calling on the water authority board to vote against continued work on the pipeline.

The Ely City Council will hold a special meeting Wednesday afternoon to adopt a similar resolution.

Not all of the opposition is expected to come from Snake Valley. A number of Las Vegas Valley residents have spoken out against the project in the past and might do so again on Thursday.

Among them is Chris Giunchigliani, who said she might speak not as a Clark County commissioner, but as a resident and a taxpayer.

Giunchigliani said she was "the only no vote" on the pipeline when she served on the water authority board last year.

Now she sees the valley's economic slump and decline in growth as an opportunity to re-evaluate the project.

"I've never agreed with it as a policy," Giunchigliani said. "Growth will never come back to what it was. It's time to really look at how we can live within our means."

Buck previously predicted a strong vote, though maybe not unanimous, in favor of pressing on with the pipeline. She still feels that way. "I think it would be very unwise to leave this valley without a backup plan."

Also Thursday, board members will vote on the authority's portion of a new water agreement between Nevada and Utah over the Snake Valley.

The authority is a party to the sharing deal but does not get any water as a direct result of it.

One provision of the agreement would require the authority to establish a $3 million fund to pay for any damage its proposed groundwater pumping may cause to existing water users in Snake Valley.

Buck said the board will hold the pipeline vote first and then discuss the agreement between Nevada and Utah.

"If we're just going to junk the whole thing, there's no need for the two-state agreement," she said. "But I don't see that happening."

Perea said pipeline opponents also will use Thursday's meeting to air their disappointment with the Snake Valley deal.

Chief among their complaints is the limited amount of time the public has been given to weigh in on it, he said.

"Apparently we only have 30 days for input ... and they've been working on that agreement for four years."

Perea has no illusions about how the board will vote on the two-state deal or the pipeline.

"I would be surprised if we could actually get a positive vote in our direction," he said. "I am realistic."

But if just two or three of the board's seven members voted against the pipeline, it would be a victory for the opposition, Perea said.

Beyond that, their goal is to make themselves heard.

"We kind of feel like we don't have a choice," Perea said. "There is no surplus water here."

If the water authority is allowed to pump, the water table will drop, the plants will die and the valley will turn into a dustbowl, he said.

As for what would happen after that, "Plain and simple, we're going to have to leave."

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean or 702-383-0350.