If the Southern Nevada Water Authority gets its way, the state's only national park could lose some of its splendor along with its water.
That was the warning delivered Tuesday by Rebecca Mills, former superintendent of Great Basin National Park, 300 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Mills said the authority's plans to siphon groundwater from a vast valley just west of the park poses a threat to everything from Great Basin's streams and wildlife to its sweeping views of the surrounding landscape.
"Great Basin National Park is a wonder," she said. "There is not enough information to assure that park resources will not be adversely affected by this project."
Mills was speaking for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees -- but not the Park Service itself -- during a state hearing in Carson City on the authority's multibillion-dollar groundwater project.
She was called to testify by attorney Simeon Herskovits, who represents the Great Basin Water Network and a host of others opposed to the authority's project.
The wholesale water supplier for the Las Vegas Valley is seeking state permission to tap up to 126,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from four rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties.
If stretched through reuse, that is enough water to supply more than 425,000 homes.
The water would be pumped to Las Vegas through a pipeline network stretching more than 300 miles.
The state hearing began Sept. 26 and is slated to last through Nov. 18.
State Engineer Jason King is expected to rule on the authority's groundwater applications in late March.
Mills said the pipeline project threatens the visitor experience at the 77,000-acre park because of the damage and disturbance it could cause in the surrounding valleys.
After all, she said, the park was established in 1986 to represent the entire Great Basin, a 200,000-square-mile area without a single river or stream that reaches the ocean. In that way, what you can see from the park is almost as important as what has been preserved within its boundaries.
Mills spent almost seven years as Great Basin's superintendent before retiring from the Park Service in 2002.
Four years later, the service and other Interior Department agencies dropped their protests of the pipeline project and entered into an agreement with the water authority to monitor and mitigate any damage from groundwater pumping.
Paul Taggart, attorney for the water authority, focused on that agreement during his cross-examination of Mills, noting all the federal officials and scientists who will be involved in keeping an eye out for potential impacts.
Authority officials insist unappropriated groundwater can be pumped from across eastern Nevada without widespread damage to the landscape or the livelihoods of rural residents -- and without violating state and federal environmental laws.
But such assurances have not erased anxiety at Great Basin National Park.
Current Superintendent Andy Ferguson has voiced concerns about the project, and members of his staff are collecting data for a baseline study of water resources within the park.
Mills said it could take decades for the effects of pumping to show themselves. "And we are concerned, if and when monitoring reveals a significant impact, it could be too late to mitigate the impact."
If approved, the authority's network of wells and pipelines would bracket the national park, tapping water in both Spring Valley to the west and Snake Valley to the east.
Great Basin is the only national park located wholly within Nevada. Lake Mead National Recreation Area is managed by the park service, and a remote corner of Death Valley National Park extends into the state.
The park's main attractions include Lehman Caves, 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak and bristlecone pine trees dating back almost 5,000 years. It also features 100-mile vistas, solitude and some of the darkest night skies of any park outside Alaska, Mills said.
"It is nearly impossible to quantify these values. It is our duty and our privilege to preserve them."
Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal .com or 702-383-0350.