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Long-standing legal battle over rural pipeline continues

ELY — The long-standing legal battle over a plan to pump groundwater from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas continued this week as attorneys from both sides of the fight pushed to undo as well as defend differing parts of a former state engineer’s decision to block the plan.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority’s lawyer, Paul Taggart, asked Senior District Judge Robert Estes to overturn parts of the decision issued last year by the former state engineer, which denied the authority’s applications for permits to build a pipeline to funnel groundwater from four rural valleys in White Pine and Lincoln counties.

Taggart argued that then-State Engineer Jason King “misinterpreted” a directive issued by Estes in a prior ruling on the project proposal in 2013 that led to the state engineer denying the permits.

If that decision is upheld, Taggart argued, it would have lasting consequences on the future of water development projects in Nevada.

“If we can’t have the water, then that would be the determination that there is no water for anyone,” Taggart said. “If that’s what it is, then no one can develop water in this state.”

Environmental impacts feared

Opponents of the plan — including environmentalists, American Indian tribes, Great Basin ranchers, two counties in Utah and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — argued the judge should uphold the state engineer’s decision denying the permits because the water authority’s plans would lead to significant environmental upheaval. They said wells in the area could dry up and those affected would receive only token compensation.

“This almost guarantees and really opens the door to wildly unsustainable groundwater management,” said Simeon Herskovits, the attorney representing many of the pipeline’s opponents. He added later that the authority’s proposal, if approved, would allow for “open-ended, limitless drawdown” of the groundwater basins.

When it came to the state engineer’s decision to uphold the water authority’s proposed mitigation plan, the roles were flipped: The pipeline’s opponents claimed tribal nations’ due process rights were denied and said the plan does little to prevent possible degradation of the surrounding area, including a grove of swamp cedars in White Pine’s Spring Valley that’s considered sacred to Shoshone tribes.

The majority of the two-day hearing featured lawyers rehashing technical and jargon-heavy arguments about water law, hydrology and geology in front of a packed courtroom. It was just a little more than six years ago that many of the same lawyers were in front of the same judge, making virtually the same arguments.

What was new was that lawyers for the state, while not formally appealing the state engineer’s decision, asked the judge to revisit the 2013 court orders that eventually led to King’s ruling to block the pipeline plan, despite the engineer’s own belief that the order represented “poor water policy for all Nevadans.”

Long history

Southern Nevada officials have pushed for plans to pipe water 300 miles from rural Nevada to Las Vegas since 1989. The authority says the pipeline, with a price tag of roughly $15 billion, would supply water for some 170,000 new homes.

In 2010, the state Supreme Court struck down two previous rulings that gave the water authority almost 79,000 acre-feet a year from the same four valleys. In that ruling, the high court directed the state engineer to hold new hearings on the authority’s groundwater applications, which happened in 2011.

The state engineer again approved the authority’s plans. But after another appeal, Estes ordered the state engineer to recalculate whether or not there was enough water available in the eastern valleys’ groundwater basins to match the proposed supply demands, which eventually led to the state engineer grudgingly rejecting the proposal last year.

The decision rests in Estes’ hands, but that ruling is not expected to come down for several months.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3280. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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