The Southern Nevada Water Authority board voted unanimously Thursday to forge ahead on plans to pump groundwater from rural Nevada and pipe it to Las Vegas.
The board voted to appeal a recent ruling that denied the authority’s water rights for a controversial groundwater pipeline project that would siphon more than 7.8 billion gallons of groundwater each year from Eastern Nevada to the Las Vegas metropolitan area.
Last year a federal district court judge ruled that the Bureau of Land Management failed to show how it would compensate for potential significant losses to wetlands and wildlife habitat caused by the pipeline project, sending the decision back to state engineer for additional environmental analysis.
The vote came after the state engineer denied the water authority’s applications to pump groundwater out of four water basins in Eastern Nevada based on the environmental analysis. But the engineer promised to appeal his own ruling, arguing that his office was prevented from granting the water authority’s permits due to unprecedented requirements for determining the availability of water set by the District Court, which he said were inconsistent with the long-standing Nevada water law.
“We always want to be part of the appeal process,” said County Commissioner and SNWA Board Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick about the board’s decision. “We are appealing, as the state engineer is appealing his own decision. There is our resource plan that we need to defend.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak, who is on the board, voted in favor of granting the state engineer’s appeal after telling The Nevada Independent that he did not support the groundwater pipeline earlier this week.
During the hearing, Sisolak sought to clarify that the board was voting on whether to appeal the state engineer’s ruling, and not on their opinions of the pipeline.
“We are not voting today on our opinion of the pipeline. We are voting today exclusively on the question of whether or not to appeal the judicial decision,” Sisolak said. A SNWA staff attorney agreed.
“We are puzzled that Commissioner Sisolak would take a public stance against the pipeline on Tuesday, and then vote in favor of SNWA continuing to pursue the water grab on Thursday,” Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada director for the Center for Biological Diversity, wrote in an email. “Commissioner Kirkpatrick made the claim that today’s vote wasn’t about the pipeline, but that is a false narrative — it’s clear the SNWA board voted in favor of the pipeline today.”
Donnelly, who is also board member for the Great Basin Water Network, said opponents will legally fight efforts to keep the project alive. He said they are concerned that if SNWA’s argument carries the day, the authority would be empowered to move forward with only token compensation for the environment and senior water rights holders.
“We are continuing our legal fight against the pipeline, as we head back through another round in the courts,” wrote Donnelly.
Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin, who also serves on the board, said he has been involved with the project for over 30 years, and dismissed proposals about piping in water to Nevada from Vancouver or the Columbia River.
“We need to defend it because we are financially deep into this project as it is,” Coffin said. “We really have tried to avoid taking water out of there but the water belongs to the citizens of Clark County as much as anybody.”
Kirkpatrick reminded the councilman that hearing was solely about whether or not to move forward with the appeal process and not about support for the pipeline.
Conservationists, ranchers, local governments, and tribes have argued over the years — three decades, in fact — that the “water grab” will draw down aquifers beyond their capacity to naturally recharge, and that the project effectively amounts to groundwater mining.
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.”