Water pipeline plan draws flood of letters

A state board and a Clark County commissioner are among the thousands of groups and individuals who went on the record last week to oppose the Southern Nevada Water Authority's pipeline plan.

State Engineer Jason King estimates he received about 23,000 letters about the project by Friday's deadline for public comment.

Based on what he has read so far, "about 99 percent" of the letters are in opposition to the pipeline, King said.

"A lot came in late Friday afternoon," Nevada's top water regulator said Monday. "My inbox was filled this morning."

The water authority is seeking state permission to tap groundwater across eastern Nevada and pump it to Las Vegas through a multibillion-dollar pipeline more than 300 miles long.

King is expected to rule on most of the groundwater applications tied to the project by late March.

He said he received letters from across the state and around the world. "Some of them are form letters. A lot of them aren't," he said.

The bulk of the letters -- 21,063 in all -- came on a single computer disk sent to the state engineer by the Center for Biological Diversity, a national conservation group based in Tucson, Ariz. The group sent an action alert to members worldwide urging them to weigh in on the pipeline project.

King has pledged to read every written comment, but in the case of form letters, he said he only plans to note the signatures at the end.

"I actually got my calculator out, and if I do one minute per letter, it will take me 14 and a half days," he said with a chuckle.

Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said she sent a letter opposing the pipeline because she thinks valley residents have a responsibility to "live somewhat within our means."

"Should we be taking water just to feed growth? Is that really the way to do public policy? I don't think it is," she said.

Water authority officials probably weren't banking on Giunchigliani's support anyway. During the year she served on the agency's board of trustees, she made her feelings known by voting against the acquisition of ranch property in White Pine County to support groundwater development.

Giunchigliani said as far as she knows she is the only county commissioner to oppose the project in writing, but that's OK. She has gotten used to being alone on an island when it comes to certain issues.

"So be it," she said. "I know how to swim."

The Nevada Wildlife Commission also sent a letter of opposition to the state engineer -- and without a moment to spare.

The nine-member board of governor-appointees voted to oppose the project within hours of Friday's deadline and then sent a messenger to King's office to make sure the letter got there in time.

Wildlife Commissioner Charlie Howell of Las Vegas said the vote was 7-0 with two members abstaining because of potential conflicts.

"To draw down that much water would be devastating for the wildlife," he said. "That's just way too much water to take out of there."

As far as Howell is concerned, the project doesn't make much sense at the south end of the pipe either.

"We don't need to get water for another 250,000 homes in Clark County," he said. "We don't need another 250,000 homes in Clark County. We've got way too many empty homes already."

The commission's stance may not reflect the views of the Nevada Department of Wildlife as a whole.

Department officials have been in talks with the water authority over a possible monitoring and mitigation agreement for the pipeline project.

The authority has reached similar deals with several federal agencies that manage land or other resources in areas targeted for groundwater development.

Water authority spokesman J.C. Davis said discussions with state wildlife officials have been ongoing for months, but "nothing is imminent" in terms of an agreement.

The cities of Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas all publicly support the pipeline project, as do the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, and several gaming, construction and labor organizations.

King said his decision on the authority's groundwater applications will be largely based on state law and scientific evidence, not the court of public opinion.

But the fact that more than 20,000 people chose to make their feelings known is not lost on him.

"It's public comment. It doesn't rise to the level of expert testimony. But it's someone's opinion, and I certainly have to give it some weight," King said.

All written comment on the pipeline project will be available for public view on the state engineer's website.

King said the first letters should start going up later this week. He couldn't say how long it might take to post all 23,000 of them.

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