July 22, 2011 - 1:01 am
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers are backing an effort to lengthen the comment period for a proposed Las Vegas water pipeline that critics say will have drastic environmental and economic effects on five rural valleys in Utah and Nevada.
More than 70 Utah legislators signed a letter Wednesday urging the Bureau of Land Management to accept public comments on the environmental impact statement for the project through Dec. 1. That would add 90 days to the original Sept. 9 deadline.
Four arguments in favor of the extension are identified in the letter, including the difficulty for the affected farmers and ranchers to review the EIS during their busy summer months.
Legislators also expressed concern about the technical nature of the document, which is hundreds of pages and took six years to compile before being released in June.
“A more deliberative process will produce better comments, which will better inform BLM’s decision-making,” lawmakers said in the letter.
The request from state officials is being sent on the same day that the Great Basin Water Network, a coalition opposed to what they describe as a “water grab” by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, released a summary of the negative effects found in the BLM document.
Among the “irreversible” changes in the EIS highlighted by the group are increased dust pollution as groundwater levels reduce, changes to wildlife and fish habitats, and the decimation of ranches and farms that are the economic base of the affected areas.
J.C. Davis, spokesman for the water authority, said the feared effects on water levels won’t happen because BLM officials don’t take into account planned mitigation efforts or groundwater monitoring.
Davis also said BLM officials contradict themselves by claiming fugitive dust will become a problem as vegetation disappears. Yet, in a different part of the study, BLM officials said vegetation will not disappear but will transition from deep-rooted to shallow-rooted plants.
“The argument of increased dust doesn’t work,” Davis said. “There are lots of valleys in Nevada and Utah where (shallow-rooted) plants are common.”
The dispute over the water pipeline is of particular concern for Utah’s political leaders because it would take water from the Snake Valley in western Utah, near the Nevada border. The water that feeds the valley comes primarily from mountains in Nevada.
Both states have established a team of negotiators to craft a water-sharing agreement that includes environmental protections that could derail continued pumping if detrimental effects to sensitive species occur or the water table is drawn down significantly.
If water use by existing users is compromised, the agreement also establishes a fund to compensate existing users.
That agreement, however, is in limbo, given a June ruling by the Nevada Supreme Court that said the Nevada water engineer failed to address adequately environmental protections in the four Nevada valleys of Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar.