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LAS VEGAS - A top Southern Nevada water official is blasting a push by Utah lawmakers for a federal study of her agency's plan to draw groundwater from eastern Nevada, calling it a move aimed at fostering development in southern Utah.

Southern Nevada Water Authority chief Pat Mulroy on Wednesday also accused Utah officials of tampering with Nevada's ''sovereign right'' to develop groundwater resources within its boundaries.

''This isn't about protecting farmers or the environment,'' Mulroy said. ''The truth is they [Utah officials] need water to develop the I-15 corridor.''

On Thursday, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, countered Mulroy's attack, defending Utah's water rights, saying he was "fairly unsympathetic" to Nevada's position.

Mulroy would not consent Friday to a request from The Salt Lake Tribune for a 20-minute interview. Scott Huntley, spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said Mulroy could not spare the time.

Mulroy's angry response, first published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, came on the heels of The Tribune's report that Utah's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee had sent a letter to Utah's congressional delegation seeking support for a $6 million study of an aquifer beneath the Snake Valley in eastern Nevada and western Utah.

Some Utah lawmakers expressed a fear that large-scale groundwater pumping in the Snake Valley could lead to dust storms in the highly populated Salt Lake Valley.

Boyd Clayton of the Utah State Engineer's office said it was reasonable to assume the pumping project would cause the aquifer to drop at least 20 feet.

Conservation groups say if that happens, the vegetation that stabilizes the desert soil will die.

Utah Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Provo, a member of the legislative committee that wrote the letter, predicted the water project would lead to "a lot of dust blowing into [Utah] over highly populated areas."

But Mulroy said the dust storm prediction was overblown.

''The amount of water we're talking about taking out of Snake Valley . . . would never have that effect,'' she said. ''It's so easy to create fear and confusion because people don't understand the issue.''

Mulroy called the call for a study ''an absolute deliberate stall tactic'' by Utah officials who favor tapping groundwater from a shared aquifer to help develop Dammeron Valley near Cedar City and St. George.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Thursday said he was not interested in a new look at the aquifer.

''It would be a waste of money,'' he said. ''There has already been a study.''

But Hatch said he thought a second federal study of the Snake Valley aquifer might be a good idea because farmers and ranchers are upset about Nevada's plan to tap groundwater and send it to Las Vegas.

''We are fairly unsympathetic to Nevada's position,'' Hatch told Stephens Media, owner of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. ''The problem with this is the water appears to be on the side of Utah, and there are farmers and ranchers who are up in arms.''

Hatch said Congress might agree to a study ''as long as there is some equitable approach to the water'' beneath eastern Nevada and western Utah.

''Utah is not interested in hurting Nevada or taking water that belongs to Nevada, but we are very interested in protecting our water, especially in the west desert where water is king,'' Hatch said.

Mulroy predicted the dispute could wind up in court.

In April, Nevada State Engineer Tracy Taylor authorized the Las Vegas-based water authority to take up to 40,000 acre-feet of water annually from Spring Valley, an aquifer in White Pine County west of Great Basin National Park.

The authority is seeking another 25,000 acre-feet of groundwater in Snake Valley, east of the national park.

Authorities say an acre-foot of water is about enough water to supply two Las Vegas homes for a year. Generally, however, an acre-foot is equated to the amount of water a family of four or five needs in a year.

The water from both valleys would be piped some 285 miles to Las Vegas through a $2 billion-plus pipeline that Mulroy said could be delayed if federal officials don't grant rights of way until additional study is done.

The water would benefit Coyote Springs, a new 50,000-home development 70 miles north of Las Vegas that would include 10 championship golf courses.

Reid helped Harvey Whittemore, a multimillionaire lobbyist and Nevada land developer, secure the property that had been designated as part of an energy corridor, The Los Angeles Times has reported.

One of Reid's sons is Whittemore's personal lawyer. Another Reid son is on the Southern Nevada Water Authority Board of Directors. Reid also sponsored federal legislation to allow the water pipeline to run through what had been a wilderness area.

Utah and Nevada must reach a water-sharing agreement before the authority can tap groundwater in Snake Valley, where ranchers and several environmental groups oppose the water authority's pipeline plan.

Mulroy is not directly involved in the talks.

The water fight could spill over into decisions about more than a dozen separate groundwater basins straddling the Nevada-Utah line, and both states claim rights to water from the Virgin River.

Mulroy said the dispute also could affect talks about sharing Colorado River resources.

Nevada and Utah are among seven states that draw water from the river - along with Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.

In recent years, water managers have set aside differences to agree to share Colorado River water during drought.


* Information for this story came from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, The Los Angeles Times and The Salt Lake Tribune.