An environmental group is suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over tiny snails that live in the path of the Southern Nevada Water Authority's proposed groundwater project in eastern Nevada.
The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity warns that more than two dozen species of springsnails could be wiped out if the water authority is allowed to pump billions of gallons of water a year from rural Clark, Lincoln and White Pine counties in Nevada.
The plan could cause the water table in those areas to drop more than 200 feet, drying up the springs that support the snails and countless other species, said Rob Mrowka, an ecologist for the environmental group in Nevada.
"Scientists say this scheme to feed urban sprawl in Las Vegas could drive these springsnails to extinction," Mrowka said. "The Southern Nevada Water Authority's water grab threatens hundreds of species of native wildlife, and important water supplies for rural residents and future generations."
In 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity and others petitioned for four representative springsnail species to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that federal regulators determined that the springsnails "may warrant" protection but have failed to make a final determination within 12 months, as required.
The water authority is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Authority officials have said the pipeline project is needed to provide a backup water supply for the Las Vegas Valley, which gets 90 percent of its drinking water from Lake Mead.
Officials insist the multibillion-dollar project can - and, by law, must - be developed without large-scale damage to the environment.
Water authority spokesman Bronson Mack said the wholesale water agency has entered into agreements with federal regulators that "ensure the long-term protection of these species and other wildlife within the SNWA's project area."
The species in question are the Lake Valley springsnail, hardy springsnail, flag springsnail and bifid-duct springsnail. Most are no bigger than half a pea.
"Endangered Species Act protection is the only hope for saving these springsnails, which are a unique part of Nevada's natural heritage," Mrowka said. "Saving them would also save habitat for many other plants and animals in the Great Basin."
Contact reporter Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350.