The Southern Nevada Water Authority has something to put in its pipeline once again.
Nevada's top water regulator on Thursday granted the authority permission to pump up to 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from four rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties.
That is about two-thirds as much water as authority officials were seeking, but it's 5,200 acre-feet more than they got the last time around.
The decision from State Engineer Jason King comes roughly two years after the state Supreme Court struck down two previous rulings that granted the authority almost 79,000 acre-feet a year from Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys.
Las Vegas water officials originally applied for almost 126,000 acre-feet of unappropriated water in the four valleys as part of a larger plan to siphon groundwater from across eastern Nevada.
They hope to deliver the water to the Las Vegas Valley someday through a multibillion-dollar network of pumps and pipelines stretching more than 300 miles.
One acre-foot of water can supply two average Las Vegas homes for one year. When stretched through reuse, the 83,988 acre-feet awarded Thursday is enough for roughly 286,000 households annually.
Only some of the water will be available right away. King wants the water rights in Spring Valley to be developed in stages so potential environmental impacts can be measured and curbed.
SCIENCE AND THE LAW
Water authority officials were still reviewing the ruling Thursday afternoon, but deputy general manager John Entsminger offered praise for what he had read so far.
"We think the state engineer has grounded his decision in science and the law," he said.
The fact that the authority was granted more this time around "verifies that the water is there for appropriation and can be withdrawn in an environmentally sustainable manner," Entsminger said.
But opponents insist there is nothing sustainable about the project.
In a statement, the Center for Biological Diversity called King's ruling a disaster for rural communities, native plants and animals and all people who care about them.
"The winner in today's ruling is mindless Las Vegas growth, while biodiversity, rural residents and future generations are the clear losers," said Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based ecologist with the Arizona-based environmental group.
White Pine County Commissioner Gary Perea said King granted far too much water to the authority, and he vowed to appeal the decision.
DEPENDENT ON RIVER
Water authority officials insist they have not committed to building the pipeline. They simply want to be ready should the need arise.
The project dates back almost 25 years to when Southern Nevada water officials filed for water rights across rural Nevada.
Back then, the pipeline was meant to supply growth in the Las Vegas Valley. Now it is being touted as a backup supply for a community that gets 90 percent of its water from an overtaxed Colorado River and a shrinking Lake Mead.
King acknowledged the need in his ruling, stating that it would "not be advisable" for the state's largest community to continue to depend on a river that is "over-appropriated, highly susceptible to drought and shortage, and almost certain to provide significantly less water to Southern Nevada in the future."
But the state engineer stopped short of giving the authority everything it asked for.
The 61,127 acre-feet of water rights he granted in Spring Valley can only be developed gradually to ensure the pumping doesn't affect existing water rights.
The authority will be allowed to pump up to 38,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year for the first eight years of the project.
After that, the annual withdrawal increases to as much as 50,000 acre-feet for the next eight years and then to the full 61,127 acre-feet a year after that.
PUMP AND SEE
King also called for at least two years of scientific data collection before any water is exported from Spring Valley or the other basins.
Also, he ordered the authority to develop state-approved groundwater flow models and a monitoring and mitigation plan to protect against harmful effects on other water users and the environment.
But rancher Hank Vogler said no amount of safeguards can protect rural Nevada once the pipeline is built and the water starts flowing south.
"I don't think there's anyone with a big enough checkbook to stop it then," said the 63-year-old Vogler, who has lived and worked in Spring Valley for almost half his life.
"No one is going to have the appetite to say, 'Oh, shucks, we made a $15 billion mistake. Let's shut it down.' "
If anything, Vogler said, the authority's pipeline network will only spread to other parts of the state as more water is needed to feed the growth that many expect to return to Las Vegas.
"I'm what I've been calling myself all along: nothing more than collateral damage," Vogler said.
According to Entsminger, drought protection remains the key reason for the pipeline, but even if Lake Mead completely refills, he said the project will still be needed for the day when Southern Nevada inevitably outgrows its current water supply.
The authority already has spent tens of millions of dollars on studies, preliminary designs and legal work. The project itself carries an uncertain and much-debated price tag ranging from $2 billion to as much as $15 billion, depending on whom you ask.
Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources spokesman Bob Conrad said King would not comment on his decision because rulings from the state engineer speak for themselves.
King spent the past four months reviewing everything he read and heard during a marathon state hearing last fall that involved six weeks of testimony, 82 witnesses and tens of thousands of pages of documents.
He also waded through more than 20,000 public comments, most of them in opposition to the pipeline project, and several voluminous draft rulings penned by the authority and other major players in last year's hearing.
CRITICISM KEEPS FLOWING
The project has drawn opposition from a broad coalition of rural residents, ranchers, farmers, environmentalists, hunters and fishing enthusiasts.
They warn that large-scale groundwater pumping in an already arid landscape will destroy wildlife and the livelihoods of residents as far north as Great Basin National Park, more than 300 miles from Las Vegas.
And their fight is far from over.
Opponents have 30 days to challenge King's decision in state court. Members of the Great Basin Water Network, the chief voice of opposition during last year's hearing, already have promised to appeal.
"Holding on to these water rights for 25 to 50 years without putting them to beneficial use not only flouts the prohibition against speculation in Nevada water law, but it unfairly inhibits opportunities for future growth and development in the affected basins in Lincoln and White Pine counties," said Baker businesswoman and water network member Denys Koyle in a written statement.
Federal environmental litigation may not be far behind, either.
A federal review is under way of the entire pipeline project, which could include more than 300 miles of buried pipeline, 325 miles of overhead power lines, seven electrical substations, five pumping stations, a water treatment plant and an underground storage reservoir.
Most of those facilities would be built on public land.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is conducting the review, now in its seventh year. A final draft is expected later this year, with a decision on whether to grant the authority a federal right of way for the project.
In June 2010, the Nevada Supreme Court found that the state engineer's office broke the law by failing to act within one year on dozens of water rights applications filed in 1989 by the Las Vegas Valley Water District.
The justices tossed out the water rights awarded to the authority in 2007 and 2008 and ordered the state engineer to hear the matter again.
Sadly for pipeline opponents, very little changed the second time around.
"It is especially heartbreaking that we learned of this decision on World Water Day, a day that is supposed to be about human needs and the environment," said Ann Brauer of Indian Springs, a Great Basin Water Network member.
"Instead, this decision, if it stands, gives a green light to SNWA to defoliate the Great Basin, destroy Native American communities, dismantle conservation programs, plant water-hungry turf, encourage unneeded development and stick the ratepayers of Clark County with a $15 billion bill."
Contact reporter Henry Brean at email@example.com or 702-383-0350.