Ranch owner and water authority settle challenge of pumping plan

Las Vegas water officials have reached a settlement with a Lincoln County ranch company that challenged plans to siphon groundwater from across eastern Nevada.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority will pay Cave Valley Ranch a little more than $4 million and supply it with some water rights under a deal approved by board members on Thursday.

In exchange, the settlement calls for the ranch company to relinquish ownership of at least 1,500 acres for a conservation easement to “help preserve natural resources and benefit wildlife.”

The ranch also will drop its court challenge of a 2008 state ruling that granted the authority permission to pump more than 6 billion gallons of groundwater a year from Cave Valley and two other watersheds in Lincoln County.

At the same time, the ranch’s owners will withdraw from a case before the Nevada Supreme Court over whether property owners deserved a larger role in the state hearing on the authority’s groundwater applications in Lincoln County.

The water authority board approved the settlement in a unanimous vote with no discussion.

It still must be signed by owners of the 3,280 acre ranch, something authority officials expect to happen within weeks.

The Las Vegas attorney who represents Cave Valley Ranch could not be reached for comment.

Water authority General Counsel Charles Hauser said the settlement is not an acknowledgement of liability or potential harm that could stem from the proposed groundwater development project.

Nor does it set precedent for future deals of its kind, Hauser said. “We think this is a unique circumstance in this valley.”

Deputy Counsel John Entsminger said the water authority is simply choosing the “certainty of the settlement” over the uncertainty of what might happen in court.

But one pipeline opponent called the settlement another big-money deal by an agency that will spare no expense to silence its critics.

Launce Rake, spokesman for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said he can’t blame Cave Valley Ranch for choosing to settle rather than fight a powerful agency with “limitless financial resources.”

But, as far as Rake is concerned, “it is absolutely a payoff.”

“It’s a continuation of the buy-’em-out strategy they’ve demonstrated in Spring Valley,” Rake said of water authority officials. “Of course (the pipeline) is going to hurt the environment. They’re trying to minimize the number of eyes who are there to watch the impacts.”

Comments like that come as no surprise to water authority General Manager Pat Mulroy. She said she expects pipeline opponents to react negatively to “any settlement,” because what they want is a long, ugly court battle.

“Anything that takes litigation out of circulation is going to be denounced by them,” she said.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority owns a lot of land in Spring Valley. Since 2006, it has bought seven ranches and more than 23,000 acres in the White Pine County watershed considered the “anchor basin” for the groundwater project.

But the authority isn’t buying Cave Valley Ranch. The only property that will change hands is the roughly 1,500-acre conservation easement. The property will be deeded over to the authority, but the ranch will retain the right to graze cattle and grow crops on it for the next 20 years.

Eventually, the easement likely will be turned over to be managed by the Nature Conservancy, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation or a similar conservation group, Entsminger said.

By as early as 2013, the authority could start pumping groundwater south through a pipeline that eventually might stretch more than 250 miles and cost between $2 billion and $3.5 billion.

Authority officials say the project is needed to insulate Southern Nevada from drought on the Colorado River, which supplies 90 percent of the area’s drinking water.

Critics argue that large-scale groundwater pumping in the arid valleys of eastern Nevada threatens wildlife and the livelihoods of ranchers and farmers.

Cave, Delamar and Dry Lake valleys comprise the first phase of the pipeline project. The water the authority plans to tap there could supply more than 37,000 Las Vegas homes.

Nearly all the land in the three basins is managed by the federal government, and almost none of it is inhabited by people.

Entsminger said Cave Valley Ranch owns the only sizeable block of private land in the area.

Mulroy said the rest of it “belongs to the coyotes and the rattlesnakes.”

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

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