BLM to analyze water pipeline cost after public opposition to project

SPARKS — The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) now plans to consider not only the environmental impact but also the economic viability of Southern Nevada Water Authority’s (SNWA) multi-billion dollar plan to pump water from central Nevada into Las Vegas.

In an unusual move, the BLM will do its own economic analysis of the pipeline project and include the results in its final environmental impact statement (EIS) scheduled to be released sometime next year.

“There is quite a bit of interest in doing an analysis of the feasibility of the project, the economic feasibility, which BLM doesn’t usually do in its NEPA documents, but in this case I think we should,” said Penny Woods, project manager, BLM Nevada Groundwater Projects, at the final public meeting to discuss the project’s EIS. “We’ll probably figure out what we need and ask SNWA for the data.”

NEPA stands for National Environmental Policy Act, the law requiring the BLM do a study such as an EIS on major projects.

The BLM decided to add the economic critique in response to an outpouring of opposition to the project during a series of nine public meetings the federal agency held this month.

Critics of the water importation project have long questioned whether the pipeline, estimated by SNWA to cost $3.5 billion, is worth its price tag, especially in the current economy.

“We think $3.5 billion is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Susan Lynn, executive director of Public Resource Associates in Reno and a member of the board of directors at Great Basin Water Network, a coalition of about 40 groups working together to stop the project.

While Lynn is gratified the BLM is looking into the dollars and sense of the project, she’s concerned it may be moot.

“It will be too late to comment on,” said Lynn. “We usually only have 30 days (to comment after the final EIS), then they issue a record of decision and the record of decision is final, and you have the right to appeal.”

Once the BLM publishes its final EIS, the BLM state director, Amy Lueders, is required to consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and deliver a so-called record of decision on the project, no earlier than 30 days after the final EIS becomes available. She may also consult with the BLM state director in Utah before making the decision because the project involves Snake Valley, which is located in both Nevada and Utah, said Woods.

The decision could also be made at a higher level – by the Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior – if it looks like it may be challenged in court.

The BLM’s decision is whether to grant SNWA the rights-of-way (ROW) on federal lands needed to build the 300-mile pipeline.

The series of public meetings BLM hosted on the project concluded yesterday with a three-hour gathering in the sweltering gymnasium of Sparks High School. Earlier meetings were held throughout the area where the planned pipeline would be built, as well as in Elko, Salt Lake City, and Henderson, which boasted the largest crowd of 140 attendees.

About 30 people sat in the audience while more than a dozen people spoke in opposition to the project during the public comment portion of the Sparks meeting.

Several speakers asked questions about the need for the project in light of the economic downturn.

“One in three homes in Las Vegas are in foreclosure,” said Jan Gilbert, a Washoe Valley resident and Northern Nevada Coordinator of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “The question arises, what are we doing? People are leaving the state, not coming to it. Who is going to pay for it? Is everyone in the state going to pay for it?”

According to Jeff Hardcastle, the state demographer, population growth in the state has been flat since 2007, when there was a decline after decades of growth. He said a forecast by Moody’s Analytics projects a strong rebound in gaming, tourism and construction after 2013.

“I think they’re overly optimistic,” said Hardcastle. “If you look at other scenarios, it’s almost no growth or flat.”

“We don’t believe the (estimated) costs are anywhere near what it will cost,” said Frank Whitman with the Lander County Public Land Use Advisory Commission. “Once you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound. And we’re worried it opens the door to taking water from other counties.”

Others who attended the meeting talked about the impact to the environment, including the caves of the Great Basin National Park, which don’t get talked about as much as the wildlife and range lands.

Jim Patera, a spelunker from Washoe Valley, said he became alarmed by the final sentence in the EIS’ executive summary, which reads, “Concern has been voiced by National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, local counties and others about the impacts to water-dependent resources of interest from the proposed groundwater withdrawals associated with the project.”

Patera said he contacted the BLM to request any documentation relating to those voiced concerns.

“When I asked BLM, I was told they were confidential and could not be made public,” said Patera, who has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to gain access to the documents.

BLM’s Woods, after the meeting, said the park service and others were replying to what she called precursor documents and that their concerns were incorporated in the draft EIS elsewhere. She also said their comments were not in a form of documentation releasable under the FOIA.

Next month the pipeline will be subject to even more public scrutiny when the state engineer begins hearings on SNWA’s application for water rights of up to 80,000 acre-feet of water in Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys. The hearings, beginning Sept. 26, are a rehearing of previously granted water rights that were overturned by the Nevada Supreme Court.

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Audio clips

BLM”s Penny Woods says the agency will look at the project’s costs:

081811Woods1 :20 think we should.”

Scott Carone of the Northern Nevada chapter of Safari Club International worries the project will destroy wildlife:

081811Carone1 :13 some of it.”

Dennis Ghighieri of the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club says the pipeline would alter the landscape:

081811Ghighieri1 :15 a huge portion.”