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Water authority gets OK to pump rural water to Las Vegas

Updated Thursday, March 22, 2012 | 7:19 p.m.

CARSON CITY - State Engineer Jason King has ruled that the Southern Nevada Water Authority can pump 83,988 acre feet of water a year from four rural counties to supply Las Vegas — less than the amount the agency had requested.

King said the water would allow the Las Vegas Valley to continue to grow while not turning the rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties into a dust bowl, as opponents claimed. He said the ruling will not prove detrimental to the public interest or the environment.

The ruling follows six weeks of hearings last year and testimony from 84 witnesses. King said the water authority justified its need for the water while demonstrating its willingess to conserve. The water authority reduced its annual water consumption by 21 billion gallons despite a growth of 400,000 residents. Growth in the Las Vegas Valley will not be limited with the added water, he said.

The authority had initially asked for 125,976 acre feet but lowered its request to 104,856 acre feet from Spring Valley, Cave Valley, Dry Lake Valley and Delamar Valley in Eastern Nevada. An acre foot is 325,851 gallons.

Ranchers, environmentalists and businesses filed more than 2,000 protests against the application. The opponents labeled the agency's request a "water grab" and some suggested the water authority should instead desalinize and pump water from the Pacific Ocean to Las Vegas.

Scott Huntley of the water authority called the ruling "reasonable and conservative." The decision "is driven by science and law and we're pleased with that," he said.

An ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said taking the water will dry up springs, creeks and upland plant communities in rural Nevada. The winner in the ruling "is mindless Las Vegas growth," ecologist Rob Mrowka said.

There was no immediate comment from the Great Basin Network, one of the main opponents. A spokesman said they had not had time to read the decision of more than 200 pages.

King said four water applications were denied in Spring Valley due to potential impacts to existing water rights. The Spring Valley will only be permitted to be pumped in stages. Approvals will not conflict with existing rights or protectable interests in domestic wells, he said.

The state engineer allowed the water authority to draw 61,127 acre feet a year from Spring Valley. But the ruling permits only 38,000 acre feet over the first eight years. Then an additional 12,000 acre feet will be permitted during the next eight years and the remainder can be pumped later depending on biological and hydrological data gathered in two year periods.

In addition, there will be studies of the groundwater flow and mitigation in each basin before any pumping begins.

The ruling granted the water authority permission to pump 5,235 acre-feet annually from Cave Valley; 11,584 acre feet from Dry Lake Valley and 6,042 acre feet a year from Delamar Valley

The initial cost for construction of the proposed 263 mile pipeline to carry water from rural Nevada to Las Vegas is estimated at $3.5 billion, but could climb as high as $7.3 billion with inflation and up to $15.4 billion to cover financing costs.

Water authority officials said, however, that under the worst-case scenario, the average user's water bill would rise $30 per month.

King said if there are unanticipated impacts to existing water rights, the water authority will be required to take any and all measures, including the curtailment of pumping to solve the problems.

This is the second time the state has issued a ruling on the water authority's applications. The Nevada Supreme Court in 2010 ordered the prior applications be re-heard by the state engineer.

Leo Drozdoff, director of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which oversees King's division, said there was greater data collection and use of enhanced scientific techniques by both sides in this hearing.

But in the end Drozdoff said the findings are very similar to those in prior years, "which reinforces the sound nature of the state engineer's conclusion to date about these valleys."

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