Task force says Snake Valley water deal 'equitable' for Utah
Las Vegas • Nevada thirsty for west desert groundwater.
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Nevada's tussle with Utah over Snake Valley water is about as close to a pioneer-era water war as things get in the 21st century.

But a new twist could be the beginning of a truce.

An independent panel of Utah water attorneys appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert says the Snake Valley Water agreement with Nevada would be an "equitable" deal for the Beehive State.

That opinion will be a hard sell in arid Millard County. Commissioner Daron Smith said Monday that Millard County remains steadfast in its opposition to the agreement that could leave Utah's western counties more dry than they already are.

"That agreement calls for a 50-50 split," he said. "But if they start to drill, Nevada could end up with all the water."

Smith said Millard County has its own proposal that it wants to run past the governor before he signs the Snake Valley water deal.

A spokesman for Herbert said the governor is not ready to sign the agreement but released results of the newest legal review Monday for public review.

Thirsty Las Vegas is the driving force behind a proposed $15.5 billion project to pump desert groundwater there.

In 2009, after several years of negotiation, Utah and Nevada seemed to have reached an agreement on how to split up groundwater in the Great Basin along the Utah-Nevada line.

But under pressure from west Utah water users and conservationists, Herbert balked at signing the agreement.

In August, Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, sent an email to her board saying it should sue Utah for failure to sign the agreement.

In the meantime, Herbert appointed Steven E. Clyde, Dallin W. Jensen and Warren H. Peterson to review the 2009 agreement to determine if it is good for Utah.

"The agreement allocates this shared groundwater resource on an equal 50-50 basis," it reads in part. "Through a tiered development approach, the agreement protects existing Utah appropriated water rights for uses including irrigation, stock water, and domestic use and for habitat protection at Fish Springs."

The attorneys also state that the agreement affords environmental protections.

"Steps will be taken to assure the quantity and quality of the available groundwater Supply is maintained, to minimize adverse impacts to existing uses, and to minimize environmental impacts," the review states.

But Steve Erickson of the Great Basin Water Network called those assurances "illusory."

"We've done a detailed analysis of that in the past," he said. "The agreement sets up an adversarial process where people will have to prove they've been impacted by pumping."

Although the agreement sets out a 50-50 split, Erickson and Millard County say it will be more like a 7-to-1 split with Nevada getting the larger portion.

"I hope the governor has the good sense to reject this superficial and flawed analysis," Erickson said.

csmart@sltrib.com