Water hearing will give pipeline another, longer look


One of the longest and most important water hearings in state history gets under way in Carson City Monday, as the Southern Nevada Water Authority seeks permission to siphon billions of gallons of groundwater from across eastern Nevada.

The wholesale water supplier for the Las Vegas Valley wants to tap four valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties and pump the water south through a multibillion-dollar pipeline network expected to stretch more than 300 miles.

It will be up to Nevada's chief water regulator, State Engineer Jason King, to decide how much water can be safely removed from the valleys.

If any of this sounds familiar, that's because it's all been done before.

The Nevada Division of Water Resources conducted hearings and handed down rulings on the same four valleys several years ago, granting the authority less than half of the almost 126,000 acre-feet of unappropriated groundwater for which it applied.

Last year, the state Supreme Court overturned those new water rights and ordered the state engineer to repeat the hearing process for the authority's massive and controversial pipeline project.

That new hearing is set to start at 8 a.m. Monday and last through Nov. 18.

King then has until late March to sift through weeks of highly technical testimony and thousands of pages of supporting documents before delivering his decision.

Opponents insist they've never been closer to killing off the pipeline project.

Attorney Simeon Herskovits represents the Great Basin Water Network and will serve as the chief voice of the opposition during the state hearing. He said a lot has changed since the last round of hearings, and little if any of it has been good for the project.

"It's seemingly more imperiled or in doubt than it was six years ago," Herskovits said.

But John Entsminger, senior deputy general manager for the water authority, said the overall case for groundwater exportation hasn't really changed.

In fact, he expects much of the evidence to be similar -- if not exactly alike -- to what was presented at the previous hearings.

"There are definitely big parts that we expect to be the same," he said. "The geology of the rocks hasn't moved anywhere in the past five years."

One major difference this time around will be the authority's justification for the project.

Entsminger said officials plan to place "more emphasis on the need for diversification of our water resource portfolio," since seven out of 10 Nevadans depend on a single source -- the Colorado River -- for 90 percent of their drinking water supply.

Another key difference this time could be the outcome, he said. "We think sound science will be presented that the state engineer can award as much or more water than he did the last time."

Here's a quick guide to the hearing:

WHAT'S UNDER REVIEW?

The state engineer will consider 25 applications dating back to 1989 to pump a total of 125,976 acre-feet of groundwater a year from Spring Valley in White Pine County and Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys in Lincoln County.

That's enough water to fill almost 63,000 Olympic-size swimming pools or supply about 250,000 valley homes for one year.

Most of the water -- 19 applications totaling more than 91,000 acre-feet -- is being sought in Spring Valley, just west of Great Basin National Park.

Applications to be considered at the hearing represent about 70 percent of all the water the authority hopes to pump to Las Vegas in its proposed pipeline.

WHAT'S AT STAKE?

The very future of Las Vegas and its economy or the extinction of wildlife, livestock and livelihoods across the Great Basin, depending on who you ask.

Entsminger said that without a back-up source, the valley's water supply could be jeopardized by an unprecedented drop in Lake Mead. Even the hint of such uncertainty could hurt local bond ratings and drive away investment in the community.

Herskovits said recent studies and analysis by the Bureau of Land Management and others back what opponents have been saying all along: Large-scale groundwater pumping threatens springs and native plants and could literally transform the environment across large areas of rural Nevada.

Meanwhile, he said, the economic downturn in Las Vegas has slowed growth and dried up the authority's primary source of construction money, making a pipeline that could cost up to $15 billion to build and finance "an increasingly dubious project."

WILL THE PIPELINE BE BUILT?

No final decision on whether to construct the pipeline has been made. Entsminger said the authority wants to get all the necessary permits and approvals in place so the project is "shovel ready" should the need arise.

In addition to water rights from the state, authority officials soon hope to receive a federal right of way that will allow them to build buried pipelines and other facilities across public land.

They also expect to get sued, possibly in both state and federal court. Entsminger said it could take up to three years to resolve a federal environmental lawsuit over the project, though there is no guarantee work would be halted on the pipeline while the case was heard.

Should the authority decide to proceed, Entsminger said rural ground­water could begin arriving in the Las Vegas Valley within three years of the start of construction. It could take up to a decade to complete the entire pipeline network.

Entsminger said how soon the valley might need the water is entirely dependent on the health of Lake Mead, which has recovered recently after falling to a record low last November.

WHO'S FOR IT?

In addition to the Southern Nevada Water Authority and its member utilities, the pipeline project is backed by gaming companies, home builders, union trade groups and the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

"Basically the business community as a whole has been very supportive of doing this," Entsminger said.

Grass-roots support is harder to measure. At previous water hearings and public meetings on the project, only a handful of people not affiliated with a particular union or business group have spoken in favor of the project.

WHO'S AGAINST IT?

A broad coalition of rural residents, ranchers, farmers, environmentalists, hunters and fishing enthusiasts.

Some 210 groups and individuals filed protests against the authority's groundwater applications, though not all of them will actively participate in the hearing.

More than 100 new protestants, as the state calls them, officially joined the fight after the state Supreme Court ordered the state engineer to reopen a protest period that closed more than 20 years ago.

Among them are Utah counties, American Indian tribes and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which wants to protect its ranching operation in Spring Valley.

Several federal agencies also filed protests, then withdrew them after reaching an agreement with the water authority to monitor and mitigate the impacts of groundwater pumping.

HOW WILL THE HEARING WORK?

It will be somewhat similar to a trial, with opening and closing arguments, witness testimony and cross-examinations, all held in Room 1214 of the Nevada Legislature.

Ultimately the state engineer is the judge, but Chief Hearing Officer Susan Joseph-Taylor runs the show.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Great Basin Water Network, the Mormon church and the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Nation will present opening arguments on Monday.

The authority will spend the first three weeks of the hearing laying out its case. Protestants get two weeks at the end, starting Oct. 31.

Oct. 7 has been set aside for public input, which will be taken starting at 8 a.m. from the hearing site and by video link from the Grant Sawyer Building in Las Vegas and the Great Basin College campus in Ely.

Bob Conrad, spokesman for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said an effort is under way to add remote input sites in the towns of Baker and Caliente.

HOW CAN YOU PARTICIPATE?

The entire hearing is being broadcast live over the Internet, with the water authority and the protesting parties sharing the cost.

"The state has no money to pay for that," Conrad said.

The Division of Water Resources has set up a web page at water.nv.gov/hearings/upcoming/springetal/ dedicated to the hearing, with links to schedules, rulings and a host of documents, including the opening statements expected to be delivered on Monday.

The state will accept written comments until 5 p.m. Dec. 2. They should be addressed to Susan Joseph-Taylor, Chief Hearing Officer, Office of the State Engineer, 901 S. Stewart St., Suite 2002, Carson City, NV 89701.

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

 

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