July 9, 2008

Agency Wants to Shut Out Salt Lake, Utah Counties

By Patty Henetz, The Salt Lake Tribune

Jul. 9--Las Vegas water officials are trying to keep Salt Lake and Utah counties out of the loop during an upcoming hearing on the proposal to take 50,000 acre-feet of water annually from Snake Valley -- despite the counties' concerns that the drawdown could provoke dust-bowl conditions on the Wasatch Front.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority has filed an objection with Nevada State Engineer Tracy Taylor to requests for "interested party" status for the counties, three tribal bands, the Central Nevada Water Authority, conservation groups, businesses and residents.

The move appears to be a new, aggressive tactic to push aside Utah concerns about what could happen to Snake Valley vegetation should the water table drop too low, and move quickly on a $3.5 billion, 285-mile pipeline project that would siphon water from an aquifer that lies under the two states for use in Las Vegas.

"All this has happened rather rapidly," said Steve Erickson, a Utah spokesman for the Great Basin Water Network, one of the groups SNWA seeks to exclude. "They want to keep the public out of this process as much as possible."

Taylor will review the interested party status applications during a hearing Tuesday in Carson City and decide whether to allow further participation during a subsequent hearing or hearings. But SNWA says that because the applicants didn't formally object to the project nearly two decades ago, it's too late to get involved now.

In its legal filing with the state engineer, SNWA says that none of the interested person applicants have demonstrated that extreme circumstances prevented them from filing official protests in 1989, when SNWA first filed its application for the project.

That doesn't mean they shouldn't be allowed to be part of the administrative decisions now, said Mark Ward, a Utah Association of Counties attorney who represents Millard County, the only Utah entity to protest back then.

"What's at issue here is [SNWA] is challenging the opportunity for these groups to tell their part of the story," Ward said. "Stakes are high. A lot of these entities in 1989 didn't understand what was happening. The scope of this application is unprecedented in that kind of environment."

Interested parties may present evidence at hearings, but may not cross-examine others and can address only the issues the state engineer allows. Taylor may decide during Tuesday's hearing when the official, substantive hearing will be held, which will require setting deadlines and exchanging witness and documentary evidence lists, Ward said.

Opponents say that if Las Vegas takes the groundwater, the water table will be out of reach of the roots of the plants that fix the soil, the same phenomenon that led to the destruction of the Owens Valley in California, the result of importing water into Los Angeles.

Resultant dust storms could worsen already-degraded air quality along the Wasatch Front -- where particulate levels exceed federal Environmental Protection Agency standards -- endanger public health and threaten federal funds for highways.

Utah and Nevada are still in negotiations on the project, which requires both states' approval. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management also is working on an environmental impact study.

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Snake Valley water hearing

--In April 2007, Nevada State Engineer Tracy Taylor authorized the Southern Nevada Water Authority to take up to 40,000 acre-feet of water annually from the aquifer that lies underneath Spring Valley, west of Great Basin National Park. An acre-foot is considered enough water for a family of four for a year.

--SNWA also wants to take groundwater out of Snake Valley, on the Utah-Nevada border.

--The water would run through a 285-mile pipeline to southern Nevada. SNWA had requested 91,000 acre-feet annually. Taylor estimated that 80,000 acre-feet per year could be taken without affecting the water table, based on SNWA's plan to recharge the aquifer by pumping water uphill.

--Utah and Nevada must negotiate a water-sharing agreement before SNWA can build the pipeline.


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