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It's better for Utah to sign two contracts with Nevada to manage ground water beneath Snake Valley than to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to apportion the water. That's the opinion of three Utah water attorneys who have analyzed the agreements. But that's not the whole story.

It is environmental folly for Las Vegas to pump ground water from beneath the arid valleys to its north and send it down a 275-mile pipeline to Sin City. Unfortunately, Utah has little leverage over what happens to the water beneath those valleys that lie entirely within Nevada. However, Snake Valley straddles the Utah/Nevada state line, so both states lay claim to the ground water beneath it.

Negotiators for the two states reached agreements in 2009 to apportion half of those waters to each state and provide a process to monitor their withdrawal in a series of incremental steps. The idea is to protect the water rights of both states, to provide monitoring of withdrawals, and to require mitigation, including an end to pumping, if that becomes necessary to prevent irreversible harm to existing users and the environment.

The three water wise men have advised Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to sign the agreements. The pacts are, they say, the best way to protect Utah's interests, and certainly preferable to a lawsuit by Nevada which would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to apportion the water beneath Snake Valley. The justices would simply divide the baby. They would not provide the protections of ongoing collaboration, monitoring and mitigation.

Besides, thirsty Las Vegas is in a much bigger hurry to develop its Snake Valley water than Utah is. Under western water law, the user who develops his water first is entitled to protection from interference from those who come after. If Las Vegas builds its pipe and pump system, it would gain the upper hand over subsequent Utah users.

However, Millard County strenuously opposes the agreements on three grounds. It says the contracts don't treat the entire Great Basin ground water flow system as a whole, as federal law requires. It claims that the 50/50 allocation of water in Snake Valley is unjust because beneficial uses of the water overwhelmingly are in Utah, not Nevada. The proposed allocation also requires Utah to reserve water for use downhill at Fish Springs, but it does not require Nevada to do the same at Spring Valley for use downhill in Snake Valley.

The three wise men do not specifically rebut Millard County's objections. Unless those questions are answered, Herbert shouldn't sign.

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