Less than a week after the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) board voted unanimously to appeal a recent ruling by the state engineer that denied the authority water rights for its groundwater pumping and pipeline project, opponents are taking the matter back to court.
Monday, a broad coalition of 59 organizations and individuals opposed to the SNWA project filed a petition for judicial review in Nevada’s Seventh Judicial District Court in Ely.
Nevada State Engineer Jason King previously denied SNWA’s water rights applications before appealing his own decision, claiming his office was prevented from granting the water authority’s permits due to constraints by previous court requirements.
In the petition, led by White Pine County and Great Basin Water Network, the coalition is asking the court to uphold the state engineer’s denial of SNWA’s applications, but also asking that the court order him to deny the applications on the grounds that the SNWA’s monitoring and mitigation program is inadequate under the law.
According to the petition, the Monitoring, Management, and Mitigation Plan (or 3M Plan) is not substantively different from plans that were found insufficient by a prior court decision and “is grossly deficient and would set a dangerous precedent for the future of Nevada’s groundwater.”
“The 3M Plan would allow springs, wells, and wetlands to go dry while only providing token and temporary compensation for senior water rights holders and the environment,” said Howard Watts, a spokesman for the Great Basin Water Network, in a release announcing the coalition’s action
In 2013, a Nevada district court ruled that to award SNWA’s rights, the state engineer had to address actions that would be taken to avoid “unreasonable effects” from the Southern Nevada Water Authority Groundwater Development Project pumping in Delamar, Dry Lake, and Cave Valley.
The 3M Plan for Delamar, Dry Lake, and Cave valleys was prepared by the SNWA to satisfy that ruling.
The 3M Plan replaced the previous monitoring and mitigation plans set by the state, and in 2013 the Bureau of Land Management granted a right-of-way for the 250-mile pipeline to the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA).
But 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 the state engineer for additional environmental analysis.
“Earlier iterations of the 3M plan were struck down by Nevada courts, and the small changes made this time leave it no less deficient,” said the coalition’s attorney, Simeon Herskovits of Advocates for Community and Environment. “Allowing approval of the 3M plan to go unchallenged could have dangerous implications for Nevada, and facilitate a future iteration of SNWA’s proposed pipeline.”
Opponents of the plan believe the state engineer’s decision to approve the 3M Plan “to support its planned export of an excessive, unsustainable, amount of groundwater from Spring, Cave, Dry Lake, and Delamar Valleys” for its pipeline project “would draw down the groundwater system in a pervasively and seriously damaging manner” should SNWA obtain water rights for its pipeline project in the future, therefore failing to provide any concrete protection for existing or senior water rights.
“The arbitrary and capricious nature of the State Engineer’s determination to reverse longstanding Nevada water law and policy in order to find a way to grant SNWA’s water right applications without regard for groundwater mining and conflicts that pumping SNWA’s applications would cause is reflected in his repeated mischaracterizations of the evidence, Nevada water law and policy, and his own previous practice and precedent,” reads the petition.
For nearly three decades, the SNWA has argued that it will need a more secure water source for Southern Nevada amid an ongoing drought in the Colorado River Basin and Southern Nevada’s growing population, focusing many of its efforts on the $15.5 billion pipeline project that would siphon more than 7.8 billion gallons of groundwater each year.
The project has since been mired in litigation by conservationists, ranchers, local governments, and tribes that argue the “water grab” will draw down aquifers beyond their capacity to naturally recharge, and that the project effectively amounts to groundwater mining.
Several other stakeholders have also filed petitions for judicial review of the state engineer’s decision, which similarly challenge the state engineer’s approval of SNWA’s monitoring and mitigation plan, including The Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, Ely Shoshone Tribe, Duckwater Shoshone Tribe, the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Millard and Juab Counties, Utah.