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Las Vegas' 25-year effort to import groundwater was dealt a major legal blow this week after a Nevada state judge invalidated the desert metropolis' rights to the water under four eastern Nevada valleys.

In his long-awaited decision Tuesday, Senior District Judge Robert Estes ruled that state engineer Jason King did not adequately investigate whether the Southern Nevada Water Authority's proposed groundwater scheme would pump these basins dry or conflict with existing water rights.

Nor did his award of 61,000 acre feet from Spring Valley establish measures to protect ranchers and other water users, including those in Utah's Snake Valley.

"It was a huge victory for the opponents of SNWA's pipeline project," said attorney Simeon Herskowits, who represents a diverse group of ranchers and environmentalists fighting Las Vegas' water ambitions. "The judge ruled in our favor on all the fundamental issues we have been asserting for years."

He argued SNWA's latest legal setback could be "the death knell" for the groundwater scheme, which includes a $15 billion, 285-mile pipeline to move billions of gallons from the Dry Cave, Delamar, Cave and Spring valleys. Water authority spokesman J.C. Davis could not be immediately reached Wednesday.

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, situated just to the east and 1,000 feet lower.

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 decision.

Also fighting it are The Chuch of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which operates a big cattle operation in Spring Valley, several Indian tribes, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Great Basin Water Network.

"By setting the clock back to 1989, the court has provided an opportunity for the Water Authority and its board to explore previously ignored alternatives to this destructive project," said the Center for Biological Diversity's Rob Mrowka. "Rather than robbing the desert of its precious little water, we should be looking at sustainable ways for Las Vegas to live within its means without destroying the environment and rural communities."

Estes heard arguments over two days in June in White Pine County's courthouse in Ely.

He ruled that the water under Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar appears to be already appropriated. For Spring Valley, where there is far more water, Estes found little assurance that the proposed water withdrawals would be safe.

"Granting water to SNWA is premature without knowing the impacts, conflicts or unreasonable environmental effects so that mitigation may proceed in a timely manner," he wrote.

The judge remanded the decision back to King to recalculate how much water is available. He is also to include Juab and Millard counties in any mitigation plans for Spring Valley.

Estes was concerned that state engineers could not determine when Spring Valley's groundwater would achieve its new equilibrium between discharge and recharge once pumping began. He instructed King to structure appropriations so that such equilibrium would be achieved in "a reasonable time."