Supreme Court decision keeps water pipeline dry for now

The Nevada Supreme Court has dismissed an appeal of a lower court ruling that effectively stripped the Southern Nevada Water Authority of water rights for its controversial pipeline from eastern Nevada.

In 2013, Senior District Judge Robert Estes ruled that the state’s chief water regulator failed to adequately support a decision two years earlier to allow the authority to sink its wells in four lonesome valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties.

In an unpublished order issued Friday, the Supreme Court declared that Estes’ decision was not subject to appeal, a move that could force State Engineer Jason King to follow through on additional work the judge requested.

Specifically, Estes ordered King to recalculate and probably reduce how much the authority should safely be allowed to pump from Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys to avoid draining the basins and causing conflicts with other water rights holders there and elsewhere.

He also directed the state engineer’s office to develop a detailed monitoring and mitigation program, with clear triggers for corrective action should large-scale groundwater pumping result in damage.

The state engineer and the water authority appealed Estes’ order to the Supreme Court a little over a year ago.

Friday’s dismissal doesn’t immediately change anything as far as King is concerned. He said the high court has yet to rule on a separate writ from his office and the water authority seeking judicial review of several key technical questions raised by Estes’ ruling.

“It’s still possible that the Supreme Court will take this matter up,” the state engineer said Monday. “We’re still playing the waiting game.”

Water authority spokesman Bronson Mack agreed.

“(The dismissal) was not particularly surprising to anyone,” Mack said. “The writ petition is really what’s going to drive the process forward.”

Since 1989, Las Vegas water officials have been pushing plans to import groundwater from as far north as Great Basin National Park to fuel growth and provide a backup supply for a community that gets 90 percent of its drinking water from a single source: the overtaxed, drought-stricken Colorado River.

The idea has drawn fierce opposition from a broad coalition of rural residents, ranchers, American Indian tribes, conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts and even the Mormon Church, which operates a large cattle ranch in Spring Valley. Critics argue the project will drain a large swath of arid eastern Nevada, destroying the area and the livelihoods of those who depend on it — all while producing too little water to justify the project’s enormous expense.

The water authority hopes to deliver groundwater to the valley using a network of pumps and pipelines stretching more than 300 miles and costing as much as $15 billion. The wholesale water agency has already spent tens of millions of dollars on permitting and prep work for the project, which is expected to supply enough water for more than 300,000 homes.

Construction would take 10 to 15 years, though water could begin flowing to Las Vegas from the southernmost basins in as little as five years — assuming the authority eventually wins enough water to fill the pipeline and can successfully defend its plans in court.

Estes’ ruling marked the second time since 2009 that a judge has stripped the authority of permission — at least temporarily — to siphon billions of gallons of groundwater a year from across eastern Nevada.

Particularly in White Pine County’s Spring Valley, where the most pumping is expected to occur, Estes found the amount of water granted to the authority would prevent the basin from reaching equilibrium even after 200 years, resulting in so-called water mining he called “unfair to following generations of Nevadans and is not in the public interest.”

The judge also pointed to what he considered serious flaws and omissions in the state’s plan to monitor the impact of the project and curb any unreasonable damage it might cause.

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.