For the time being, the Southern Nevada Water Authority will have to relinquish the water rights that the agency had obtained in four eastern Nevada valleys for a pipeline to Las Vegas, State Engineer Jason King said Wednesday.
The action stems from a June 17 opinion by the Nevada Supreme Court, he said. The court ruled the state engineer must re-notice the applications and reopen the protest period in the aftermath of a case that challenged the validity of the groundwater applications underpinning the multibillion-dollar project.
"We are just now letting the water world in Nevada know how we interpreted that decision," King said late Wednesday from Carson City.
He issued a two-page response to inquiries received by his office after the Supreme Court ruling. The response said that "water rights issued to the Southern Nevada Water Authority under the 1989 applications in Spring Valley, Cave Valley, Dry Lake Valley and Delamar Valley will revert to application status."
Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesman J.C. Davis said the state engineer's response is consistent with the Supreme Court's opinion "and is not unwelcome news."
"In fact, it is what we asked of the high court because it resolves the issue in a way that is fair to both the applicants and the protestants," Davis said. "Importantly, it does not invalidate our 1989 applications," which had been filed by the authority's sister agency, the Las Vegas Valley Water District.
King said he will re-notice the applications and hold hearings on them. He will have a year after the two-month protest period to make a decision on each of the district's some 20 applications.
"We have a time crunch," King said. "We will have to stagger the publication period for all the applications. If we were to do it all at one time, there is no way we could hold hearings in one year."
White Pine County Commissioner Gary Perea, a critic of the pipeline project, could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.
Perea had declared the Supreme Court's ruling a victory because it reaffirmed that the state engineer needs to allow new protests for people who have come to eastern Nevada since 1989.
In 2003, with the district's applications still pending, the Legislature passed a law that addressed that discrepancy by waiving the one-year rule for water sought for municipal use.
That triggered a lawsuit by Great Basin Water Network, Defenders of Wildlife, Trout Unlimited and 50 rural residents against then-State Engineer Tracy Taylor.
In January, the Supreme Court said the water district's filings were too old in 2003 to be covered by such an exemption but stopped short of nullifying the applications and sent the matter back to the rural District Court.
The high court's opinion last month reaffirmed that the only valid applications were those filed after 2002, which meant the state engineer had not ruled in time on the original applications.
King said permits were never issued to the water authority for a fifth eastern Nevada valley, Snake Valley, because they hinged on an agreement between Nevada and Utah that was put in limbo by the state Supreme Court case.
The permits, he said, fall under a category of applications filed after March 31, 1947, and protested before July 1, 2002, that haven't been acted on and do not fall within exceptions waiving the one-year rule for water sought for municipal use.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.