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Southern Nevada Water Authority expected to appeal pipeline plan ruling

It looks like the Southern Nevada Water Authority won’t be taking no for an answer.

The authority board will hold a rare special meeting Thursday to launch an appeal of the most recent state ruling against the agency’s plans to pipe groundwater to Las Vegas from across eastern Nevada.

Last month, State Engineer Jason King denied the authority’s applications to pump water from four rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties.

Authority board members are expected to vote Thursday to authorize a court challenge of that decision.

Las Vegas water officials have been pushing their multibillion-dollar pipeline plan since 1989 to feed growth in Las Vegas and provide a backup supply for a community that gets virtually all of its water from a single source.

“These groundwater resources represent an important long-term water supply option and will reduce Southern Nevada’s reliance upon the drought-stricken Colorado River, which provides 90 percent of our community’s water resources and is likely to experience its first federally declared shortage within the next two years,” the authority said Monday in a written statement announcing Thursday’s special meeting. “The ability to maintain access to these available, unused groundwater supplies within our community’s 50-year water resource planning horizon is contingent on completing legal and permitting processes.”

It’s unclear what role King might play in a court review of his Aug. 17 decision.

In an unusual twist, the state’s top water regulator made it clear in his ruling that he didn’t agree with what he was doing. But King said he had no other choice given the restrictions places on him by a previous court order.

“Although the state engineer believes there is water to appropriate in the four subject groundwater basins, he is precluded from doing so as a result of the scope of those remand issues” ordered by the court, King wrote in his 111-page decision.

In 2012, King granted the authority permission to pump up to 84,000 acre-feet a year — enough to supply at least 170,000 homes — from four rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties.

But a 2013 ruling by Senior District Judge Robert Estes struck down that decision and sent the matter back to the state engineer for further review on several narrow technical issues.

In his ruling last month, King said those directives from Estes represented “poor water policy for all Nevadans,” but he was legally bound to follow them.

Longtime opponents of the pipeline project celebrated King’s decision but acknowledged that the matter was almost certainly headed back to court.

The authority’s plans have drawn fierce opposition in Nevada and Utah from rural residents, ranchers, American Indian tribes, conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts and even the Mormon Church, which operates a large cattle ranch in one of the White Pine County aquifers targeted by the authority.

Critics argue the project will drain a large swath of arid eastern Nevada, destroying the landscape and the livelihoods of those who depend on it.

The authority has already spent tens of millions of dollars on permitting and preparation work for the project. Construction of the more than 300-mile network of pumps and pipelines could take 10 to 15 years and top $15 billion, including financing costs.

Thursday’s special meeting, the board’s first since 2011, is slated to begin at 11 a.m. and include a closed session so board members can confer in private with the authority’s general counsel. That will be followed by a public vote on whether to proceed with the court appeal.

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

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