CARSON CITY – The fate of an ambitious plan by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to pump more than 125,00-acre feet of groundwater from rural areas of the state to slake the thirst of Las Vegas residents is now in the hands of the state engineer after a marathon hearing that began Sept. 26.
State Engineer Jason King heard closing arguments today in the application process, with attorneys representing opponents of the project asking him to deny the water rights sought by the agency.
Attorneys for Utah ranchers, Native American tribes, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and rural Nevadans argued that granting the applications would harm the environment and destroy their way of life.
In her testimony in support of the plan two months ago, Pat Mulroy, general manager of the authority, said the plan to acquire unappropriated groundwater rights in rural Nevada to supplement Southern Nevada’s supply of Colorado River water is absolutely essential to the economic future of the region.
The closing arguments wrapped up weeks of testimony about the effects of the groundwater pumping on the rural aquifers.
Las Vegas attorney Paul Hejmanowski, representing the Mormon church in opposing the groundwater applications in Spring Valley, said there are no protections for rural areas if the pumping ends up causing harm, despite agreements between the water authority and federal agencies to monitor and respond to declines in the water table.
“Mistakes can happen,” he said. “Where are our protections.”
If the applications are granted, all the springs will go dry and “cause groundwater mining on an unprecedented scale,” Hejmanowski said. “These applications need to be denied for the reasons we discussed. They are not in the public interest.”
Paul EchoHawk, an attorney representing affected Native American tribes, including the Goshutes and Shoshone, also argued against granting the applications. He also criticized federal government agencies for not representing tribal concerns at the hearings because they had previously entered into “stipulated agreements” with the water authority on the groundwater pumping plan.
EchoHawk called them “backroom deals” that were entered into without consulting the tribes, and said they should be disregarded by the state engineer in considering the applications.
Attorney Paul Taggart, representing the water authority, argued that substantial evidence has been submitted to support the groundwater requests.
“Don’t mistake as public interest the very small vocal minority when there are millions of people who need this water in Southern Nevada,” he said. “Approve these applications to secure a safe and reliable water supply for seven out of 10 Nevadans, and to secure the future economic development of Nevada.”
In her testimony in September, Mulroy said Southern Nevada needs to ensure it has a diverse supply of water for that time in the not-so-distant future when the states sharing the Colorado River basin fully use their allotments. The river is over-appropriated and a prolonged drought could create a shortage in coming years, she said.
There is no viable alternative to guarantee a supply of water to Southern Nevada, with desalination plants not a realistic short-term option, she said. The agency is seeking 125,976-acre feet of groundwater in Delamar, Dry Lake, Cave and Spring Valleys as part of an ambitious $7 billion project to pipe the water south. The applications have the potential to affect ranching communities in Utah as well.
Mulroy said the water would not be tapped for many years if the applications are approved. Beyond the hearing process, construction of a pipeline to bring the water to Southern Nevada will take 10 to 15 years, she said.
Opponents argued that more conservation could alleviate the need for the groundwater.
Mulroy said the agency has an aggressive turf reduction project that has helped conserve Southern Nevada’s water supplies.
The parties in the request have until Dec. 23 to file written closing briefs. The public has until Dec. 2 to file any written comments.
A decision is expected sometime next year.
Las Vegas attorney Paul Hejmanowski says approving the applications will cause the springs in Spring Valley to go dry:
Water Authority attorney Paul Taggart says the water is needed to assure the economic viability of Southern Nevada: