Las Vegas Sun

August 22, 2017

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Water authority bids for rural water rights

The Southern Nevada Water Authority on Thursday formally applied to the federal Bureau of Land Management for the right to build wells and pipelines across hundreds of miles of Lincoln and White Pine counties.

The water authority said earlier this week it would file the applications, part of a larger effort to double the amount of water flowing to Las Vegas' consumers. Pat Mulroy, water authority general manager, said the effort was a critical component of the agency's plan to diversify the portfolio of water resources. Las Vegas and its suburbs now draw 90 percent of their drinking water from drought-threatened Lake Mead.

Gene Drais, a Bureau of Land Management official in the federal agency's Ely Field Office, said the water authority's request is similar in form to the requests that other utilities and citizens often make to the agency, which controls almost all the land of Central Nevada.

What is unusual is the scale of the water authority's request, Drais said.

"The scale and the interest on this particular right-of-way application will be high," he said.

Water authority officials said the applications make good on the agency's promise to comply with federal environmental analysis rules governing land use.

"We've promised full compliance with the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) requirements and we'll begin the analysis," spokesman Vince Alberta said. "This formally starts the process."

He said the environmental impact statements required under the federal law will likely take at least a couple of years to complete. It could be at least a decade before water from Lincoln and White Pine counties comes to Las Vegas.

Drais said it takes his office 18 months at a minimum to do the environmental analysis accompanying a major right-of-way request. The bureau's process usually includes two rounds of public meetings -- a "scoping" meeting, then a second round to discuss a draft environmental impact statement.

The public can comment at both rounds, he said.

For a project of this size, public meetings will probably be held in multiple locations around the state, including Lincoln and White Pine counties, Las Vegas or Reno, he said.

The water authority board, in its Thursday meeting, also approved a $4.5 million payment to the BLM to cover costs of doing the environmental analysis.

The twin pipelines proposed to bring the water to the region stretch more than 250 miles to the heart of White Pine County, where a grassroots movement is working to block the water authority's plans.

The project has opponents in Southern Nevada, too. Mark Bird, a former Bureau of Reclamation analyst and instructor for the Community College of Southern Nevada, said he is concerned that the water authority has not released a cost estimate for the full project.

"I think that it is irresponsible that the state Legislature and the people of Nevada do not have a cost estimate," he said. "This could affect state finances for the next decade."

Bird said his estimate is that it would cost $10 billion to build the wells and pipelines. He said cheaper methods to bring more water to Las Vegas would be to buy Lake Mead water from other states or invest in new technologies to bring water to Southern California, trading that water for the right to take more of California's relatively huge share from the lake.

"I think these should be studied extremely thoroughly before going to the EIS (environmental impact statement) process," Bird said.

Water officials say they are looking at all those alternatives, including desalination plants on the West Coast, but for the immediate future the best alternative to keep water coming to satisfy the growing Southern Nevada population is to get the water from within the state.

Alberta, with the water authority, said the goal of the applications and parallel efforts with the Nevada State Engineer, whose approval is required for water wells, and Congress, which is looking at legislation to facilitate construction of the pipelines, is to get the water here as soon as possible.

"Certainly, sooner rather than later we want to get this," he said. "But we don't want to circumvent the environmental evaluation and analysis along the way."