Water agency should not skirt the law and courts by Thomas Mitchell

Clark County has sent to Congress a bill draft proposing that more than 50,000 acres of federal public land in the Las Vegas Valley be opened for private development, but dangling like a vestigial tail at
the end of the 21-page proposal is an end-run around the courts and the law that could allow the currently stalled rural water grab by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) to take place.
In 2017 a federal judge ruled that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
could grant the water agency right-of-way for a 300-mile network of
pipelines to take groundwater beneath White Pine, Lincoln and Nye
counties, but first it had to come up with plans to mitigate the
potential loss of wildlife habitat due to a draw down of the water
table, as is required by the CleanWater Act and the Federal Land
Policy and Management Act.
That task may be impossible, because federal studies show the
interconnected aquifers are already at equilibrium — water that is
already being drawn from the aquifers is being replaced gallon for
gallon annually with no leeway for additional withdrawal. The water
agency proposes to withdraw 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year.
The lands bill Clark County sent to Congress calls for the Interior
Department to give the water authority rights-of-way for an electric
power line that “shall be subject only to the terms, conditions and
stipulations identified in the existing rights-of-way, and shall not
be subject to further administrative or judicial review. The
right-of-way shall be granted in perpetuity and shall not require the
payment of rental fees.”
A right-of-way for a power line could easily accommodate pipelines, too.
The Great Basin Water Network (GBWN) — a coalition of
conservationists, rural officials, tribes and agricultural interests
which was one of the parties that successfully sued to block the water
grab — is crying foul over the decision to try to skirt the law and
the federal judge’s ruling with legislation.
“What that decision tells us is that SNWA and federal land managers
cannot figure out how to mitigate a project that would — when fully
built — destroy 305 springs, 112 miles of streams, 8,000 acres of
wetlands, and 191,000 acres of shrub land habitat on public lands,
according to the BLM,” GBWN and others write in a letter to Nevada’s
congressional delegation. “In the path of this destruction is Nevada’s
first national park, Great Basin, which hosts the state’s only
glacier, supports magnificent stands of ancient bristlecone pines, and
dazzles visitors with a majestic network of limestone caves.”
In a press release announcing its opposition to the bill draft, Kyle
Roerink, GBWN’s executive director, stated, “SNWA is trying to
re-write the laws to allow their destructive pipeline and remove
barriers that were enacted to protect Nevadans and their public
resources. Members of the delegation should not do SNWA’s dirty work
by gutting bedrock environmental protections to pave the way for a
project that will kill endangered species, mine groundwater, and
siphon away Eastern Nevada’s future in return for sprawl.”
Roerink also noted the opponents have been fighting the water grab for 30 years.
If it goes forward, it is estimated the groundwater project will take
40 years to complete at a cost of $15 billion — a cost that would
require the tripling of water rates in Clark County. According to an
SNWA resource plan the water is not needed until 2035.
“Its gargantuan $15 billion price tag (in 2011 dollars) highlights
SNWA’s blatant disregard for its own ratepayers –– many of whom live
on low or fixed incomes,” Roerink argues.
“Those costs could mean water bills skyrocketing in Las Vegas while
wildlife, landscapes, businesses, local governments and tribes suffer
in Eastern Nevada.”
In his 2017 ruling federal Judge Andrew Gordon noted the importance of
the controversy to both sides of the issue, writing, “I am sensitive
to the strong feelings and weighty interests at stake in this contest
over Nevada’s water — after all, in the West, ‘whisky’s for drinkin’
and water’s for fightin’ over.’ There can be no question that drawing
this much water from these desert aquifers will harm the ecosystem and
impact cultural sites that are important to our citizens. On the other
hand, southern Nevada faces an intractable water shortage.”
Our congressional delegation should allow Clark County to develop land
within its boundaries, but should not grant this proposed end-run
around the courts and the law to slake its thirst.

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