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Ely, Nev. • The Nevada state engineer should never favor one part of the Silver State over another while deciding water rights cases.
But that is exactly what Jason King did last year by authorizing the export of 61,127 acre-feet of Spring Valley's groundwater to Las Vegas, according to arguments presented Thursday in 7th Judicial District Judge Robert Estes' packed courtroom.
That water rights decision, if allowed to stand, could sacrifice the lifestyles of eastern Nevada ranchers, tribal members and other rural residents so Clark County can build more subdivisions, lawyers told Estes, the current referee for the dispute that holds broad implications for how water is managed in the arid West.
"We aren't asking for water for swimming pools and golf courses. We want to be able to live here," argued Scott Williams, a lawyer for the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation. "The people who live on this land understand the concepts of limits. The Indians who have lived here since time immemorial and the ranchers who came later have conformed their lives to what is available."
Groundwater from the aptly named Spring Valley supports not only rich vegetation such as its famous swamp cedars, but also feeds Utah's Snake Valley. Because several agricultural communities there rely on aquifers and springs, Millard and Juab counties and other Utah interests are among numerous parties challenging King's water rights ruling.
Meanwhile, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) denies its groundwater plan will harm the environment, rural economies or tribes' cultural interests.
This week's two-day hearing is the latest legal skirmish in a long-running fight over eastern Nevada's groundwater, which SNWA says it needs to accommodate growth around Las Vegas and to diversify its portfolio of water sources.
It is proposing one of the largest groundwater pumping operations in the nation's history to fill a proposed $15 billion, 285-mile pipeline that it hopes will solve its water woes.
"Two million people in southern Nevada rely on the Colorado River for water, and that supply is no longer a reliable source," the water agency's lawyer Paul Taggart said. "The level [of Lake Mead, which Las Vegas taps for 90 percent of its water] dropped 140 feet between 2000 and 2011. We cannot expect this situation will get any better. Las Vegas is doing what most cities have to do, and that's bring water from somewhere else."
Estes is weighing whether King's award of rights to groundwater under Spring Valley and three other rural valleys met criteria outlined in state law authorizing interbasin transfers of water. The key questions are: Does Las Vegas need the water? Does it have the ability to put the water to "beneficial use"? Does the transfer conflict with existing water users? Is it environmentally sound? Does the transfer serve the public interest?
No, no, no, no and no, argued attorney Simeon Herskovits. He represents a large and diverse group of petitioners that includes environmentalists, Nevada counties and ranchers like Kena Lytle Gloeckner, who believe that by the time impacts from groundwater pumping become apparent it will be too late to fix the problems and too difficult to force Las Vegas to reduce its withdrawals.
"It is inconceivable there won't be conflicts with existing water users and impermissible environmental impacts," Herskovits said, claiming King conducted a "results-oriented" fact-finding process that arbitrarily limited the scope of analysis.
The water authority accused its critics of exaggerating the project's impacts and ignoring the safeguards mandated by the state engineer's ruling.
"He will continually oversee this project. He required staged development. He will allow only part of the project to develop, watch how that occurs before he would allow the next step to occur," Taggart said.
SNWA is obligated to drill several wells and monitor springs as part of a long-term mitigation plan, but critics dismissed it as "a joke" that lacks concrete triggers that would require the water agency to shut down its pumps.
"Maybe someone will notice the problem, maybe someone will report the problem, maybe someone will analyze the problem, and maybe the problems can be reversed," argued Paul Hejmanowski, who represents the LDS Church's Cleveland Ranch in Spring Valley. "Or maybe not. What are the consequences of the maybe not? There is no proof that this program can do a darn thing to avert disaster."
At least five separate groups, each with its own issues and goals, is challenging SNWA. The Utah counties, for example, want assurances that the monitoring plan includes mitigation for their side of the state line. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns large cattle operations in Spring Valley, argues SNWA's plan amounts to "groundwater mining" and should be scaled way back to protect water sources for the valley's ranchers.
And the Shoshone and Goshutes contend groundwater export will desecrate a region that holds spiritual significance. SNWA conceded its plan would displace native plant communities, which according to the tribes are a source of traditional foods and medicines and harbor the spirits of those slain in two U.S. Army massacres.
"Their bones are still there," a tribal lawyer argued.