BLM approves Las Vegas water pipeline project

Nevada • Lawsuits are likely over plan involving rural valleys in two counties.
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Carson City, Nev. • The Bureau of Land Management signed off Thursday on a massive pipeline project to carry water from rural counties along the Nevada-Utah line to Las Vegas.

The record of decision, signed by Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes, authorizes the BLM to issue a right of way to Southern Nevada Water Authority for the 263-mile pipeline that will stretch from the rural areas to the desert metropolis that is home to about 2 million people.

Nevada's state engineer in March granted the water authority permission to pump up to 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from four rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties. His approval has since been challenged in court by environmental groups, local governments, Indian tribes, ranchers and others who claim the project will ensure economic and environmental doom to the rural areas.

"This is a huge milestone for southern Nevada," said Patricia Mulroy, SNWA general manager. "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 for the 2 million people who call southern Nevada home."

BLM spokeswoman JoLynn Worley in Reno said the decision authorizes the "main conveyance and support facilities" to be built on federally owned land. But she added that environmental studies still will be required on specific aspects of the project as it is built.

Thursday's approval is the final decision on the project by the Interior Department. Further challenges must be filed in U.S. District Court, and lawsuits are likely.

During the review process, critics claimed the BLM relied on outdated or faulty data. They also argued the project's price tag — once estimated around $3 billion — would more likely approach $16 billion. That expense, they said, should have been addressed in the agency's environmental report to determine if the project was financially feasible.