Water authority challenges groundwater ruling

Advocates and opponents of a plan to pipe groundwater to Las Vegas from three valleys in Lincoln County are headed for a showdown in the Nevada Supreme Court.

In an expected move today, the Southern Nevada Water Authority board voted to appeal a judge’s ruling that stripped the agency of the water it hoped to tap in the first phase of its pipeline across eastern Nevada.

The Oct. 15 ruling by District Judge Norman Robison struck down a 2008 order by State Engineer Tracy Taylor that cleared the authority to pump more than 6 billion gallons of groundwater a year from Cave, Delamar and Dry Lake valleys in central Lincoln County.

In a stern rebuke of Taylor’s order, Robison ruled that the state’s chief water regulator “acted arbitrarily, capriciously and oppressively” when he approved the withdrawals without sufficient proof that the valleys could sustain large-scale groundwater pumping.

But if anyone is being arbitrary and capricious, it’s Robison, said water authority General Counsel Chuck Hauser.

Taylor’s decision was based on a host of scientific evidence presented during two weeks of testimony in February 2008, Hauser said. “We feel the judge simply ignored all that evidence and simply substituted his own opinion for that of the state engineer.”

Board members approved the appeal in a 6-0 vote with no discussion. North Las Vegas Mayor Shari Buck, who serves as chairwoman of the seven-member board, did not attend the meeting.

Hauser said a notice of appeal would be filed with the Nevada Supreme Court by Friday at the latest. He said it will take 60 to 90 days to prepare the authority’s opening brief. The whole case could last a year or more, he said.

“I don’t think this will delay the project,” Hauser said.

For one thing, the network of wells and pipelines is still in the midst of a federal environmental review that is not planned for completion until next year.

And the water authority board has yet to give final approval to construct the project. The Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is considering an appeal of its own on behalf of the state engineer.

Department spokesman Bob Conrad said Taylor basically has three options: appeal Robison’s ruling, rewrite his order to address the judge’s concerns, or scrap the order and start over with a new hearing. The controversial pipeline was first proposed to feed growth in the Las Vegas Valley, but now supporters tout it as a reserve supply for a community that gets 90 percent of its water from the drought-stricken Colorado River.

If the project is approved someday, the authority plans to pump groundwater south through a pipeline that could stretch into White Pine County, more than 250 miles away, and cost between $2 billion and $3.5 billion. Cave, Delamar and Dry Lake valleys compose the first phase of the proposal, with enough water sought there by the authority to supply more than 37,000 Las Vegas homes.

Robison’s ruling has been hailed by the critics of the pipeline, who insist the project will suck eastern Nevada dry and destroy wildlife and the livelihoods of people living there. The board heard from one of those critics after today’s vote.

Launce Rake is spokesman for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, an advocacy group that strongly opposes the pipeline project. He said Robison made the correct ruling “based on the science presented” to the state engineer, and he thinks the judge’s decision should stand.

“I, as a ratepayer, and tens of thousands of other people do object to the continued pursuit of the water grab,” Rake said.

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

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