Their proposed pipeline might be half-empty so far, but Southern Nevada Water Authority officials prefer to see it as half-full.
Deputy General Manager Kay Brothers said she is generally pleased by a ruling Wednesday that grants the authority a little more than half of the groundwater it sought from three valleys in central Lincoln County.
The order issued by State Engineer Tracy Taylor clears the way for the authority to pump more than 6 billion gallons of groundwater a year from Cave, Delamar and Dry Lake valleys. When stretched through reuse, the water could supply almost 64,000 homes.
The authority wanted to pipe more than 11 billion gallons a year from the three valleys as part of its groundwater exportation project targeting parts of rural Clark, Lincoln and White Pine counties.
"We thought more water was available, but we know the state engineer is conservative and we respect that," Brothers said.
Taylor’s ruling mirrors a previous decision that gave the authority only a part of the water it was seeking from White Pine County’s Spring Valley. In that order, issued last year, the state’s top water regulator approved 13 billion gallons a year out of a request for almost 30 billion. But Taylor agreed to let the authority take an additional 6.5 billion gallons annually if a decade of pumping proves the water is available.
Brothers said the authority’s resource plan for the next 50 years was built on the assumption that the agency would not get all the groundwater it applied for in eastern Nevada.
"Our planning horizon has always looked at a range, and what we’ve seen so far is in that range," she said.
By as early as 2013, the authority hopes to start delivering rural groundwater to the Las Vegas Valley through a pipeline that is expected to stretch more than 250 miles and cost between $2 billion and $3.5 billion.
Authority officials see the project as a way to supply water for growth in the Las Vegas Valley and insulate the community from drought on the Colorado River, which provides 90 percent of the valley’s drinking water.
Critics argue that large-scale groundwater pumping in the arid valleys of eastern Nevada threatens the region’s wildlife and the livelihoods of its ranchers and farmers.
Wednesday’s ruling drew a tepid response from those most opposed to the project.
"We think the decision was sort of a mixed bag," said Simeon Herskovits, a New Mexico-based attorney representing stakeholders who have protested the authority’s plans to the state.
Herskovits said Taylor agreed with some of the concerns raised by the opposition and "didn’t bite" on some of the authority’s more speculative arguments. But, he said, the state engineer failed to address the long-term problems with pumping so much water, though the authority is "locking it in as a permanent supply."
"There are some things to be pleased about" in the ruling, Herskovits said, "but overall, we are concerned that the outcome was too much water permitted to the Southern Nevada Water Authority."
For Lincoln County resident Farrel Lytle, the issue is personal. He said he comes from a family that has been running cattle in Dry Lake Valley since the 1870s, "so, yeah, we have a long-term interest over there."
His cousin Kenneth Lytle and several other ranchers still use the valley for livestock grazing.
"That’s their winter range," Farrel Lytle said. "They can see their wells running dry, and they’re out of business."
Of particular concern to him is the figure Taylor came up with for the amount of water that flows into the valley each year through precipitation, in-flow from neighboring basins and other sources. Lytle said Taylor’s perennial yield estimate of 12,700 acre-feet, about 41 billion gallons, seems far too high.
"It’s called Dry Lake Valley for a reason," he said. "There aren’t any alfalfa circles out there."
Of the 6.1 billion gallons a year Taylor granted to the authority Wednesday, 3.8 billion will come from Dry Lake Valley, 1.5 billion from Cave Valley and 800 million from Delamar Valley.
Brothers said the groundwater from Delamar Valley, about 90 miles north of Las Vegas, will be part of the first to arrive as the pipeline network is built from south to north.
Under Taylor’s order, the authority will be required to develop a monitoring and mitigation program and to collect data for at least two years before exporting any water from the three valleys.
With the Lincoln County basins out of the way, the one piece of the pipeline puzzle that remains is Snake Valley, a White Pine County watershed that straddles the Nevada-Utah border.
The authority has applied to take as much as 16 billion gallons of water a year from the valley, which is home to Great Basin National Park and some of the pipeline project’s most outspoken critics.
Taylor will hold a planning session in Carson City next week to set the ground rules for a hearing on Snake Valley. The hearing is expected to take place early next year.
Opponents are weighing a court challenge of Wednesday’s ruling. Herskovits said it is too soon to predict whether they will go that route.
"I’ve read it once so far," he said of the 40-page document. "I’d like to read it two or three more times."
Even if the ruling goes unchallenged, the pipeline project still could wind up in federal court. Environmental reviews are under way that could trigger lawsuits from ranchers and conservation groups, Herskovits said.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at email@example.com or 702-383-0350.