Pipeline obstacle looming

Southern Nevada Water Authority officials have requested a state hearing on the final piece of a massive pipeline project they plan to build to tap groundwater from across eastern Nevada.

And they may have saved the most difficult part for last.

The authority is seeking state permission to pump as much as 16 billion gallons of water a year from White Pine County's Snake Valley, more than 250 miles north of Las Vegas.

The vast and sparsely populated watershed on the Nevada-Utah border is home to many of the authority's harshest critics, including ranch families who have lived in the area for generations.

"We know there are a lot of very vocal people who live in Snake Valley. We've seen that in the other hearings," said Kay Brothers, deputy general manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Snake Valley stretches into Utah and includes Nevada's only national park, so the authority also can count on a bitter fight from conservationists and Utah officials when the hearing is held.

"It should be contentious," said Jo Anne Garrett, who has lived just outside the Snake Valley community of Baker for almost 40 years.

In a letter sent last week to State Engineer Tracy Taylor, the Southern Nevada Water Authority requested a hearing "as soon as possible" on its nine applications for groundwater in Snake Valley.

The applications are for the use of more than 50,000 acre-feet of water a year, enough when stretched through reuse to supply more than 170,000 homes.

Taylor will have final say over how much groundwater, if any, the authority can safely pump from Snake Valley to supply growth in Southern Nevada.

"Obviously, I think we'll get some water," Brothers said. "There's quite a bit of unappropriated water in Snake Valley, so I can't imagine we won't get some water."

Taylor's review process will begin July 15 with a half-day administrative hearing in Carson City to establish procedures and document-filing deadlines for a larger hearing later this year or early next year.

Susan Joseph-Taylor, chief hearing officer for the Nevada Division of Water Resources, described the meeting in July as a "planning session."

Garrett has been fighting the pipeline since it was first proposed almost 20 years ago.

In the early 1990s, she spearheaded a sales tax initiative that is still helping to fund White Pine County's opposition to the project.

Despite all that history, Garrett said, the call for a hearing on Snake Valley caught her off guard.

"This announcement is very sudden and unexpected," Garrett said. "It seems like kind of a rush."

She thinks the state should delay any action at least until a federal environmental review of the pipeline project can be completed.

That process is now under way.

Authority officials insist they already have enough water to justify construction of the pipeline network, which is expected to cost $2 billion to $3.5 billion.

Following a hearing in 2006, Taylor granted the authority permission to eventually pump nearly 20 billion gallons a year from nearby Spring Valley, also in White Pine County.

Then in February, the state's top water regulator held a hearing on the authority's plans to pump more than 11 billion gallons of groundwater a year from three valleys in central Lincoln County. Taylor is expected to rule on that part of the project in the coming months.

The authority's Snake Valley applications represent the last piece of the pipeline puzzle.

Before that hearing is held, Brothers said the authority will hold talks with the Department of Interior over a stipulation agreement similar to ones reached for the other watersheds targeted by the pipeline.

Shortly before the two previous state hearings, federal agencies agreed to drop their protests in exchange for assurances that the proposed groundwater pumping won't harm sensitive wildlife and fragile habitat in those areas.

Garrett said it "will be interesting to see" whether federal officials are willing to strike the same sort of deal in a valley that is home to Great Basin National Park.

At the very least, Garrett said, she expects the National Park Service to voice some concerns.

Garrett also expects Snake Valley's neighbors to the east to come out swinging when the hearing is finally held.

"I think the growing intent in Utah is not to take this lying down," she said.

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