ELY — Las Vegas water officials will have to wait until later this year — if not longer — to learn the fate of their $15 billion pipeline to eastern Nevada.
At the conclusion of a two-day hearing Friday at the White Pine County Courthouse, Senior District Judge Robert Estes said it will take him months to rule on an appeal that could strip water rights from the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s controversial project.
“Don’t expect an order next week,” the judge from Fallon said. “I’m not even going to get started on this until August.”
A short time later, Estes left the courthouse carrying a 2-foot stack of binders representing just a small portion of the evidence in the case.
At issue is a 2012 order by State Engineer Jason King granting the authority permission to eventually pump some 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year — enough for more than 160,000 homes — from four rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties.
King’s order was challenged on legal and scientific grounds by opponents of the pipeline project, namely Great Basin ranchers, environmentalists, American Indian tribes and even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which runs a cattle ranch in one of the targeted valleys.
Authority officials said they need to bring rural groundwater to the Las Vegas Valley to supply future growth and provide a backup supply to a community that draws nearly all of its water from a shrinking Lake Mead.
But opponents argue that the valleys of eastern Nevada are simply too dry to sustain so much pumping without devastating residents and the environment.
“It’s a hugely expensive and threatening project,” said Simeon Herskovits, the lawyer for many of those who officially protested the pipeline. “If this project goes forward, this spells real trouble for all of rural Nevada.”
Friday’s session drew about 20 people, smaller than the audience that crowded into the 105-year-old courthouse on Thursday. Much of the testimony focused on three watersheds targeted by the authority in Lincoln County, including the ironically named Dry Lake Valley.
And the volume of evidence in the case came up again and again.
Even though the original groundwater applications underpinning the project were filed more than 20 years ago, Herskovits said, the authority has still failed to collect enough data to demonstrate the true impacts of its pumping or develop specific plans to track and mitigate any damage that might occur.
The state engineer could have and should have required that work to be done upfront before any water was granted, he said.
But authority attorney Paul Taggart said there is no shortage of proof in support of the pipeline.
“I think there’s 20 boxes in the clerk’s office, which is the official record in this case,” he said. “We’ve only scratched the surface in this hearing of all the evidence the state engineer heard.”
The resulting decision “struck the proper balance between water development and protecting the environment,” Taggart said.
The lawyers from both sides had been through all this before.
In 2010, the state Supreme Court struck down two previous rulings that gave the authority almost 79,000 acre-feet a year from the same four valleys. But rather than deny the water rights outright, the high court directed the state engineer to conduct new hearings on the authority’s groundwater applications, which he did in 2011.
Estes gave no hint of how the case might turn out this time around. At the end of Friday’s hearing, he simply thanked the lawyers for their professionalism and urged them to be patient.
“I have several trials set between now and August,” Estes said. “However long this takes me, I won’t be dawdling.”
His decision, whichever way it goes, likely will be appealed to the Supreme Court.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350.