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Las Vegas' plan to tap billions of gallons of groundwater lurched closer to reality this week after the Bureau of Land Management granted a right of way for a 263-mile pipeline connecting the fast-growing gambling destination with rural basins to the north near the Utah state line.
But excluded from this decision, which environmentalists and local ranchers will likely challenge in court, was the contentious matter of whether the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) will tap water from under the Snake Valley, the basin straddling the state line west of Delta. This is because Las Vegas has yet to secure rights to this groundwater, which remains in dispute between Utah and Nevada.
A proposed interstate agreement for dividing Snake Valley water awaits the signature of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. According to a spokesman on Friday, the governor and his advisers intend to review BLM's move before deciding whether to sign off on the agreement, which has been favorably vetted by a panel of water-law experts.
Under this proposal, Nevada would be able to pull up to 36,000 acre-feet annually from Snake Valley for diversion to the Las Vegas metropolitan area, which is seeking water sources to supplement its reliance on the over-allocated Colorado River.
The new BLM decision focuses on proposed infrastructure that will move 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater from Cave, Dry Lake, Delamar and Spring valleys, and another 41,000 acre-feet secured through agreements with ranchers and Lincoln County. (An acre-foot, equal to 326,000 gallons, can meet the annual needs of up to four households.)
SNWA General Manager Patricia Mulroy called the new BLM decision a "huge milestone" for southern Nevada, while environmentalists called it "pure folly."
"The ability to draw upon a portion of our own state's renewable groundwater supplies reduces our dependence on the drought-prone Colorado River and provides a critical safety net," she said in a statement.
But a network of conservation advocates and Nevada water users denounced the right-of-way approval as a shortsighted decision that will prove costly to both ratepayers and the environment.
"This decision defies common sense, and is pure folly and shortsightedness," said Abby Johnson, president of the Great Basin Water Network, in a news release. "The BLM's own environmental impact statement, in thousands of pages of analysis and disclosures, confirms that, if implemented, the project would result in certain devastation for the environment, ranching families, Native-American people, and rural communities.
While Utah groundwater is not yet in play, those living downwind in the Beehive State have a lot to worry about if eastern Nevada basins are dried up to slake Las Vegas' thirst, according to Salt Lake City activist Steve Erickson, a network board member.
"Over 30 million tons of new dust and particulate matter will be created each year as winds send aloft soil no longer secured by Great Basin vegetation such as sagebrush and greasewood," Erickson said. "In that dust are radionuclides, toxic heavy metals and soil-borne diseases which pose a real and serious danger to Utahans."
BLM authorized the right of way Thursday after several years of environmental review. The approval paves the way for construction, operation and maintenance of the main 84-inch-diameter pipeline across public land, as well as power lines, pump stations, regulating tanks, water treatment facility and other infrastructure associated with the multiphased project that critics say will cost more than $15 billion.
Actual construction and groundwater pumping will be subject to further environmental analyses, but opponents say "the die is cast" with this right-of-way decision.
"They will tier off this study for site-specific analyses in the future. This grants the big permission from which many little permissions will be granted," Erickson said. "This decision flouts their own science. We haven't made any decision yet as a network, but I'll bet the mortgage we'll be seeing the BLM in court."