Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2004 | 11:07 a.m.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority board is expected to move forward this week with the application process to open up vast parts of Nevada to new wells to bring water to Las Vegas.
The water authority board will consider an agreement that would pay the federal Bureau of Land Management -- which controls most of the land in Lincoln, White Pine and Clark counties on which the water authority wants to put wells and pipelines -- $4.5 million to supervise an environmental analysis to be performed by an independent contractor. The BLM environmental work, to be done in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is needed before the water authority can move forward with its aggressive plans to tap groundwater in central and northern Nevada.
The agency hopes the in-state groundwater resources will eventually equal the amount of water Las Vegas draws annually from Lake Mead. The lake currently supplies 90 percent of Southern Nevada's drinking water.
The environmental impact statement would take two to three years to complete, water authority spokesman Vince Alberta said Monday. Water from the project would, under the agency's timetable, come to Las Vegas in 2011.
Shaaron Netherton, executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said the rights-of-way applications appear to be "very routine," at least in process if not in scope.
However, Netherton notes that her organization and other environmental groups oppose the development of the groundwater resources for Las Vegas' needs.
Kay Brothers, deputy general manager of the water authority, which supplies nearly all of urban Clark County with wholesale water, said the agreement with the federal agencies delivers on the water authority's longstanding promise to do environmental analysis to avoid any negative impact on existing wells and springs in Lincoln and White Pine counties.
The key for the project is to avoid "impacting the sensitive resources" of the region, Brothers said.
"This starts the whole formal public process for this whole thing that goes up to White Pine County," she said. "The BLM, with this funding, will start doing what their people need to do."
She characterized the agreement with the BLM and the applications for rights-of-way as a critical step towards expanding her agency's portfolio of water resources, now almost totally dominated by Lake Mead and the Colorado River. The river and lake are now jeopardized by five years of drought in the West, a situation that has pushed the water authority to move up its schedule of groundwater development.
If the water authority board approves the agreement at its Thursday morning meeting, the BLM's Ely Field Office should begin doing the environmental impact analysis in September, Brothers said.
Chris Hanefeld, Ely field office spokesman, said Ely Field Manager Gene Kolkman would approve the agreement, and the Ely office would work to involve the White Pine and Lincoln county governments as "cooperating agencies."
He said the BLM is working to balance the need to supply water to a Clark County population approaching 2 million and to protect the environment it oversees.
"We're committed to conducting a fair and open process," Hanefeld said.
The agreement with the BLM's Ely Field Office would come while parallel efforts to secure groundwater continue.
In Washington, D.C., Nevada's congressional delegation is working to pass a bill that would grant the water authority rights-of-way for pipelines through the same area. The Lincoln County Land Act is scheduled for Senate hearings next month.
Alberta said the combination of the right-of-way process that should be formally launched this week with the Lincoln County Land Act would shorten the time line for the entire groundwater development program by years.
"The legislation essentially establishes utility corridors and rights-of-way, so it accelerates the administrative process by several years without circumventing the environmental process," he said. "We have combined two environmental processes into one without circumventing any (required environmental) analysis.
"We're cutting through some of the bureaucracy with the legislation."
Jane Feldman, an activist with the local chapter of the Sierra Club, said she is happy that the environmental impact statement preparation should, by federal law, include opportunities for public comment, but not happy that the process would come faster.
"The EIS will kick off the public hearings and the public process," she said. "It should start some analysis and study that are not required by legislative actions (in the Lincoln County Land Act.)
"But whenever you cut the time in half, it cuts the amount of analysis in half, and the public doesn't have as much time to respond," Feldman said. "None of that is good."
Her group has criticized the Lincoln County Land Act, water authority officials say unfairly, for short-circuiting the public processes.
While the targeted water sources under the right-of-way effort would take another seven years, the water authority hopes to bring water from wells in Clark County's Three Lakes Valley, about 60 miles northwest of Las Vegas, in a separate effort by 2007.
The 1998 Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act already granted the water authority rights-of-way for "the impoundment, storage, treatment, transportation or distribution of water" in Clark County.
Alberta said the Three Lakes wells require a less intensive environmental assessment, rather than a full environmental impact statement, because the scope of the work will be more limited. The wells and pipeline in Clark County would cost about $40 million.
The water authority has not released estimates for the cost of the pipelines that would go in a network 250 miles north of Las Vegas, but the cost is expected to be many times more than the Clark County wells and pipeline.