A ruling Friday could mark the end of a three-decade fight over the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) plan to pump groundwater from eastern Nevada aquifers to Las Vegas, according to critics of the “water grab.”
But the state engineer promised that water permit denials issued by the Nevada Division of Water Resources (NDWR) Friday will be appealed.
“In my opinion, it is a death knell for the proposed project,” said Howard Watts, a spokesman for the Great Basin Water Network. “I think that it is unlikely that SNWA will prevail in an appeal,” said Watts, a Las Vegas Democrat who is running for the Nevada Assembly
As it now stands, SNWA doesn’t have any water rights in those valleys outside of the ranches they own, making the proposed water pipeline logistically and financially infeasible, Watts said.
“This is a stunning victory for groundwater sustainability,” said Patrick Donnelly, the State Director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “As the climate is changing as the effects of groundwater exploitation are being felt in places like Pahrump and Eureka I think the state engineer is now taking actions like this one which demonstrate a commitment to groundwater sustainability.”
The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) Groundwater Development Project proposes to build a 250-mile water pipeline that would carry 27 billion gallons of groundwater each year from rural Eastern Nevada aquifers to Southern Nevada.
On Friday, the Nevada Division of Water Resources (NDWR), led by State Engineer Jason King, denied SNWA’s applications to pump groundwater to Las Vegas from the Spring Valley, Cave Valley, Dry Lake Valley, and Delamar Valley groundwater basins in Eastern Nevada.
The NDWR previously approved each of these SNWA water rights applications in 2007, 2009, and 2012, but last year a federal District Court judge ruled that the Bureau of Land Management failed to show how it would compensate for significant losses to wetlands and wildlife habitat caused by the water pumping and pipeline project, and ordered additional environmental analysis.
After being struck down by the Courts repeatedly, the decision was sent back to the state engineer by the Courts to reevaluate. The additional analysis led to a two-week hearing in the fall of 2017 for all interested stakeholders, which included SNWA, local governments, tribes, and environmental groups in Nevada and Utah.
In the ruling King agreed that the SNWA water right applications would hurt the existing water rights holders in Northern Nevada as well as threaten the Swamp Cedar Areas of Critical Environmental Concern and denied their applications.
Legal and regulatory challenges from environmentalists, ranchers, local governments, and tribes have argued over the years — three decades, in fact — that the pipeline will draw down aquifers beyond their capacity to naturally recharge and that the project effectively amounts to groundwater mining.
But the fight is far from over. King announced Friday he intends to appeal the decisions, arguing that he believes the methodology for determining the availability of water required by the District Court sets a precedent inconsistent with the long-standing application of Nevada water law and water appropriation statewide.
“The Nevada Division of Water Resources is dedicated to protecting, managing, and enhancing Nevada’s precious water resources,” said King said. “In an effort to protect the integrity of Nevada’s water laws, the NDWR intends to appeal sections of the mandated instructions that threaten to upend the historical application of Nevada water law and water rights.”
The Groundwater Development Project, as SNWA calls it, is part of SNWA’s 50-year plan to meet Southern Nevada’s anticipated water needs.
Since the plan was developed in 1989, it has prompted frequent and sometimes bitter clashes between SNWA and opponents. When the economy crashed a decade ago, so did the project’s profile. But as Southern Nevada’s economy and population have rebounded, so has attention to its controversial groundwater pumping plan.
The project has been described as potentially “the largest interbasin transfer of water in U.S. history.