SNWA makes it official, shelves long-contested water pipeline project

thirsty
Great Basin Water Network "Water is Life" video still. (greatbasinwater.net)
thirsty
Great Basin Water Network “Water is Life” video still. (greatbasinwater.net)

After three-decades and $330 million dollars the Southern Nevada Water Authority voted Thursday to suspend plans to build a 250-mile pipeline that would have pumped billions of gallons of groundwater from rural Nevada to the Las Vegas metropolitan area.

“At this point, staff is recommending moving this project into deferred status,” said SNWA general manager John Entsminger.

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 rebounded, so did attention to its controversial groundwater pumping plan.

Conservationists, ranchers, local governments, and tribes have argued that the “water grab” would draw down aquifers beyond their capacity to naturally recharge, destroying hundreds of springs, thousands of acres of wetlands, and harm the Great Basin National Park and numerous National Wildlife Refuges.

The Groundwater Development Project, as SNWA calls it, is part of SNWA’s 50-year plan to meet Southern Nevada’s anticipated water needs. While Nevada receives only about 2 percent of the total water allocated from the Colorado River, Clark County depends on the river for about 90 percent of its water stored in Lake Mead, a reservoir that’s been depleted over the years due to drought and overuse.

Entsminger listed conservation efforts, the completion of other construction projects, and intrastate partnerships as reasons the authority ultimately decided to shelve the project.

In April, the SNWA completed work on the Low Lake Level Pumping Station at Lake Mead, a project that will ensure the water authority can access water from the lake even if water levels continue to drop. 

The station “gives us tremendous water security in terms of being able to access water supplies from Lake Mead on the Colorado river,” said Entsminger during the meeting.

He recommended withdrawing any impending groundwater applications, withdrawing from federal stipulations including Spring Valley, and for accounting purposes writing off about $330 million related to the project that has been accrued since 1989.

Commissioner Justin Jones said he believes the SNWA can achieve water sustainability in Southern Nevada for substantially less than the cost of building the pipeline.

“I would say that the architects of the groundwater project are well intentioned,” Jones said. “They wanted to ensure that Southern Nevada has long-term access to water given our Colorado River allocation.” 

“Over the course of the past 30 years it’s clear that the project does not make sense environmentally or economically.”

During the meeting, White Pine County Commissioner Gary Perea applauded the water authorities’ decision in a call.

“Thank you to the SNWA Board for their action today, it’s a long process but you made the right decision today. As we move forward I hope that we start moving in the direction as a state instead of as regions,” Perea said.

Environmental groups who have long fought the proposed pipeline praised the SNWA vote.

“This might be the best day of my life,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada State Director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “In this line of work it’s not every day you get a clear victory like this.”

In 2017 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.

The project would wend its way in and out of courts several times, including a SNWA appeal that a judge rejected in March, prompting opponents to declare the project all but dead.

Donnelly credited SNWA’s decision in part due to the change in leadership on the board including the addition of Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones, a water authority board member, who has been a vocal opponent of the pipeline.

Kyle Roerink the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, called the vote a victory for rural and urban Nevada. 

“Vegas ratepayers will save billions of dollars, and the Great Basin’s aquifers will retain billions of gallons of water,” said Roerink. “This decision is the product of immense sacrifice on behalf of rural communities, tribes, environmentalists and others – all of whom were told time and again that this day would never come.”

“The defeat of the water pipeline boondoggle is more than a huge victory for Great Basin Water Network and our allies. It’s also a win for future generations of plant life, wildlife and human life in the Great Basin,”  said Abby Johnson, GBWN Board President, in a statement.

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.