Guv ready to make Snake Valley water deal with Nevada

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Utah and Nevada officials say they're ready to sign a deal splitting border groundwater in the Snake Valley despite opposition from members of a new Utah advisory board set up to study the plan.

The Snake Valley Aquifer Advisory Council met Wednesday at the Utah Capitol to review public comments about the deal, which effectively grants Nevada the water that a Las Vegas utility wants for a proposed pipeline supplying the city. After discussing those comments, board members themselves voiced their misgivings but learned that a final agreement is imminent.

That dismayed Kathy Hill, a Snake Valley teacher whose husband, Ken, is an advisory council member. She told the council the states' rush to enter an agreement shakes her faith in government. Rural residents are being sold out as Nevada seeks its Vegas pipeline and Utah seeks Nevada's blessing for one from Lake Powell to St. George, she alleged.

"I feel like we're a pingpong ball," she said.

After the meeting, Hill said the hurry is preventing thorough review of the consequences. "I just don't know how bad this agreement is," she said.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert believes the deal is needed to protect the rights of current water users in the desert valley west of Delta, said John Harja, board chairman and the governor's director of public lands policy coordination.

"He is convinced that an agreement is better than none," Harja said. The next step, he said, is to declare an end to negotiations and have Utah Department of Natural Resources Director Mike Styler sign the deal.

Herbert's spokeswoman, Angie Welling, confirmed he's ready for Styler to approve the deal. "It's just a matter of schedule at this point," she said.

Welling said the governor's support has nothing to do with Utah's hopes for Nevada's support of a Lake Powell pipeline.

"This agreement is not being used as a bargain chip for anything else," she said.

The agreement splits 108,000 acre-feet of water that state officials believe is available below the valley each year. It aims for roughly a 50-50 split, though that means giving most new rights to Nevada because Utah farmers have used most of the water pumped to date.

Styler's Nevada counterpart, Allen Biaggi, said he's ready to sign whenever Utah is ready.

"The state of Nevada at this point feels comfortable with the 50-50 split," Biaggi said.

Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, one of six Herbert appointees joining Harja on the advisory council, said he opposes the deal because of fears of dust pollution swarming the Wasatch Front should Snake Valley go dry. He asked Harja whether there was time to write the governor with his complaint before the deal is final.

Harja's response: "As long as that's fairly soon."

Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation and an advisory council member, said the agreement should protect groundwater throughout the Great Salt Lake watershed, and not just Snake Valley rights. He said he wants more time to discuss the deal with his council. Harja said he would relay that request to the governor.

Millard County's three commissioners, two of whom are advisory council members, participated in the meeting by video link and said they oppose the agreement.

Callao rancher Don Anderson, also an advisory council member, said he supports the agreement because it's likely as good as Utah can expect.

The deal requires the states to stop new water pumps if they result in environmental consequences such as vegetation depletion, dust storms or loss of water for users with previous rights. It also pushes back the Southern Nevada Water Authority's pipeline water rights hearing before the Nevada state engineer from next year to 2019, during which time the states will conduct studies to verify the amount of water available.

Anderson said he fears that no judge would turn off the spigot once thousands in Las Vegas are living on the water. That makes the 10-year study period crucial, he said, so he expects the advisory council to demand good science proving how much water is available before Las Vegas takes any water.

The council accepted public comment Wednesday, and several people said they don't understand the rush given that they're hearing Southern Nevada Water Authority doesn't even intend to tap the valley's groundwater until 2040. Utility spokesman J.C. Davis later confirmed the 2040 target, but said the date will move up if drought shrinks Nevada's share of Colorado River water.

"The wild card there is Mother Nature," Davis said. "We need to have all of our ducks in a row" with a signed agreement in case drought requires earlier action, he said.

Biaggi said the state of Nevada's urgency stems from a need to know whether the state engineer must schedule the Las Vegas water rights hearing for next year or, as the agreement indicates, 2019.

Proposed Snake Valley water split

35,000 acre-feet of current Utah rights.

12,000 acre-feet of current Nevada rights.

20,000 acre-feet for Fish Springs National Wildlife refuge in Utah.

35,000 acre-feet of new water rights to Nevada.

6,000 acre-feet of new water rights to Utah.

Each state's engineer will have veto power over any additional water appropriations if, as state officials hope, another 24,000 acre-feet are available.