Gov. Gary Herbert on Wednesday announced he is rejecting a controversial deal that would have shared with Nevada rights to water in an aquifer beneath Snake Valley, sending some 21 billion gallons of water annually to Utah's western neighbor.
"My decision was made as I visited with the good people who live in western Utah those most affected by the outcomes," Herbert said. "I have also visited with local officials and county commissioners, even as recently as yesterday. A majority of local residents do not support the agreement with Nevada. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience sign the agreement because I won't impose a solution on those most impacted that they themselves cannot support."
Herbert said it was one of the most difficult calls he's had to make as governor.
"I appreciate all who have engaged in good faith in this effort, particularly the state of Nevada, to find a mutually agreeable solution," he said. "The fact that I will not sign this agreement does not change our water priorities as a state. We will continue to do everything we can to protect Utah's water, protect individual water rights, and protect Utah's environment and way of life."
The governor noted that the matter could end up in court. "There is no certain outcome with an agreement and no certain outcome without it."
Late Wednesday afternoon in a prepared statement, the Southern Nevada Water Authority said it would evaluate its options in the wake of Herbert's decision.
"We are disappointed that Governor Herbert has unilaterally chosen not to comply with a congressional directive to both his state and Nevada," it reads in part. "The negotiating team which included Utah representatives that reflected the interests of both state and local stakeholders invested three years in determining the most equitable way to divide Snake Valley's groundwater resources in a manner that provided the maximum level of protection for Utah's water users and environment while allowing Nevada to draw upon a water supply that originates within its own borders."
Millard County commissioners, environmental groups and some area water users including the LDS Church opposed the agreement, fearing a replay of the devastation Los Angeles visited upon California's Owens Valley in the 1920s. The export of any water could disrupt Snake Valley's hydrology and put its productive wetlands and ranches into a death spiral, they contended. Also of note, Snake Valley last year experienced its worst-on-record year of drought.
"We have to give the governor all the credit in the world," said Millard County Commissioner Daron Smith. "He had a lot of people giving him advice. We know it was an extremely tough decision for him."
Ranchers in Snake Valley and others throughout the area "appreciate him coming down here and visiting with us," Smith said. "We didn't think this was a good agreement. Nobody believes there is extra water out there."
The agreement would divide the valley's water resources equally between the two states, annually allotting 66,000 acre-feet of water more than 21 billion gallons to each state. But many had felt that was unfair because Utah historically has been allocated more because most of the valley's arable land is on the Utah side of the state line.
But most of the recharge occurs on the Nevada side, mostly in the form of snow in the towering Snake Range, Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) officials say.
The SNWA is a public agency hoping to secure and develop water rights in Snake Valley and four nearby valleys. This water would be sent to Las Vegas through a multibillion-dollar 285-mile pipeline the water authority plans to build.
Directed by Congress to work out a deal over Snake Valley water, Nevada and Utah hammered out a draft agreement almost four years ago, and it had been awaiting Herbert's signature almost since the day he took office.
The agreement notes that 132,000 acre-feet can be extracted each year, but several observers believe that number is a political fiction and the actual water available could be far less. (An acre-foot, or 326,000 gallons, can support two to four homes' annual water use.)
Utah's environmental community has been sharply critical of the agreement, saying it could dry up Snake Valley and send dust into the Wasatch Front, adding to its air pollution.
"This is a great decision for Utah, and we are grateful to the governor for doing the right thing," said Zach Frankel, director of the Utah Rivers Council. "The water project was not just another environmental disaster, it was about to be a dust bowl" that would choke the West's people and environment with toxic dust.
He said he doubted Nevada has the wherewithal to move forward with the $15 billion project. But negotiating with Utah on its share of Colorado River water might now be a reasonable option.
Rupert Steele, former chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Indians, said he urged Herbert not to sign the agreement at community meetings last month.
"The Goshute tribe was against the agreement because the [water-availability] study did not include the reservation," said Steele, who sat on the Snake Valley Water Advisory Board when he was chairman of the 566-member tribe. "Politically, they left us out because they didn't want to deal with us."
He was not comfortable with the mitigation and monitoring plan because the impacts would be seen too late. "The effect isn't going to be felt until 10 years after the water is lowered," Steele said, noting that the tribe would have been left to fight the agreement alone.
Last month, in meeting with Snake Valley residents at meetings in EskDale and Partoun, Herbert and his advisers had said that without the accord, the administration feared SNWA would be free to apply for the valley's water rights and develop them without regard to Utah's interests. Officials noted the agreement obligates the water authority to wait 10 years before applying for the valley's water rights and requires both states to monitor groundwater discharge during this period from numerous springs and test wells.
It also provides ironclad protection of existing water users, such as rancher Dean Baker and dairyman Jerald Anderson, while also mandating reduction in withdrawals if groundwater pumping is causing environmental damage and depleting the aquifer, according to state officials.
Baker said he was disappointed the governor did not sign the deal. He'd come to believe that the water rights that had helped build his ranch for the past 50 years would be better protected with the agreement.
"For us, in my opinion, it will be much harder for us with existing, prior rights to be protected if the [pipeline] is built," Baker said.
The Bakers, a multi-generational ranching family based in Baker, Nev., initially opposed the agreement but later switched position to endorse it, saying they believe it gives the best shot at ensuring the proposed Vegas pipeline never reaches the Snake Valley.
This is because the 10 years of monitoring the agreement calls for may prove the valley's groundwater is already being "mined" by ranchers' wells, Baker and his son Dave told residents at the governor's March 20 meeting in EskDale.
Callao rancher Cecil Garland praised Herbert for listening to those most affected despite pressure to sign the agreement. He called Herbert's decision "heroic."
"I was elated to hear it," said Garland, who's relied on a combination of three irrigation wells in his 40 years of raising cattle and the hay to feed them in the Northern Snake Valley.
"You can't have much of a farming and ranching operation without water," he said. "I feel strongly 100 percent strongly that we were about to lose our water."
On Monday, Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis chided the governor over Snake Valley, anticipating Herbert would sign the agreement. In a news release, Dabakis said it was apparent that Herbert was "seeking political cover to turn our precious Utah water over to Nevada developers."
But after the governor's announcement Wednesday, Dabakis "saluted him."
"After years of deliberating, and hours after Utah Democrats demanded that the governor do the right thing, the governor did," Dabakis said in a prepared statement.
Snake Valley water timeline
2004 • Congress orders Utah and Nevada to work out an agreement on allocation and management of groundwater resources in Snake Valley.
August 2009 • The two states produce a water-sharing agreement saying 132,000 acre-feet of water per year will be made available for distribution. Each state will get 66,000 acre-feet or about 21.5 billion gallons.
Jan. 6, 2010 • Gov. Gary Herbert's spokeswoman says he is ready for Utah Department of Natural Resources Director Mike Styler to sign the agreement.
Jan. 8, 2010 • Herbert's spokeswoman says that before signing, the governor wants to address concerns of Millard County commissioners and Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, who want more scientific study.
Jan. 28, 2010 • The Nevada Supreme Court rules on a Las Vegas water-rights case, which Styler later says will delay a decision on the agreement until at least 2011.
August 2011 • Representatives of the Utah Farm Bureau, Great Basin Network and Goshute Tribe warn at a public hearing that pumping water from west desert aquifers will harm Snake Valley agriculture and Wasatch Front air quality.
August 2012 • Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy sends an email to her board saying it should sue Utah for failure to sign the agreement.
October 2012 • Three water attorneys asked by Herbert to review the agreement conclude it would be an "equitable" deal for Utah. In response, the Millard County Commission says a 50-50 split of water with Nevada is nonsensical because Utah has historically used the most water.
March 20, 2013 • Herbert visits with residents in EskDale and Partoun, where he tells them that without the agreement, Nevada is free to apply for the water rights now and develop them without considering Utah's concerns. He says he will decide by April 1 whether to sign the agreement.
March 28, 2013 • Herbert says at his monthly KUED news conference he will decide whether to sign the agreement in a couple of weeks.
April 3, 2013 • Herbert announces he has decided against signing the water-sharing agreement.