Pipeline appeal may need new judge

A state court eventually could decide the fate of a controversial plan to supply Las Vegas with groundwater from the rural valleys of eastern Nevada.

First, though, a judge must be found to hear the case.

Since late April, when opponents of the Southern Nevada Water Authority's proposed pipeline filed court challenges against the project, two rural judges disqualified themselves because of potential conflicts of interest.

The case then was assigned to former Nevada Supreme Court Justice Miriam Shearing, now a senior judge who fills in occasionally at district courts around the state.

Pipeline opponents since have filed to have Shearing removed and new judge assigned.

Simeon Herskovits is a New Mexico-based attorney who represents the broad coalition of ranchers, environmentalists and rural residents fighting the water authority's plans.

Herskovits said he is not required to disclose - nor would he discuss - his reasons for wanting Shearing off the case. But his peremptory challenge of the judge must, by definition, be granted automatically.

"I don't know when we'll have a new judge assigned. Hopefully, it will be soon," Herskovits said.

Senior judges are assigned through the Nevada Supreme Court.

Spokesman Bill Gang said no request has come in for a new judge.

As far as the court is concerned, the pipeline appeal is still assigned to Shearing, who made history when she was elected as Nevada's first female Supreme Court justice in 1992.

Pipeline opponents have asked the District Court to review and overturn a March 22 order by Nevada's top water regulator that 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.

The decision from State Engineer Jason King came roughly two years after 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.

One acre-foot of water can supply two average valley homes for one year.

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 through a multibillion-dollar network of pumps and pipelines stretching more than 300 miles.

King's ruling in March drew nine separate petitions for judicial review, some of them filed in the White Pine County seat of Ely and some in the Lincoln County seat of Pioche.

Herskovits, who was responsible for four of the petitions, is seeking to have all nine consolidated into a single case.

The issues are "the same across the board," he said, so it makes sense to handle it all as "one knot, just as the state engineer did."

Herskovits expects all of the motions and judicial shuffling to delay the case until next year. Whoever winds up holding the gavel can expect to do a lot of reading, he said.

Steve Dobrescu and Dan Papez are the two elected judges who initially disqualified themselves from the pipeline appeal.

They represent Nevada's Seventh Judicial District, which serves all of Lincoln, White Pine and Eureka counties - almost 23,700 square miles with fewer than 18,000 residents.

Conflicts can be tough to avoid for judges in such rural areas.

When a lawsuit related to the authority's pipeline plan was filed in the Seventh District in 2006, Dobrescu had to step aside because one plaintiff was a longtime friend, and another was the mother of his secretary.

Papez then removed himself because he used to serve as White Pine County district attorney and had authored and filed the county's opposition to the water authority's groundwater applications.

Their decision to step aside this time around came as no surprise to Herskovits and company.

"We knew that would happen," he said. "It's a no-brainer."

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