Las Vegas Sun

July 17, 2018

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25 years out, no end in sight to water pipeline fight

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Sam Morris

Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy has long backed a water pipeline from White Pine County to Las Vegas.

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If water wars were still fought with bullets, the Southern Nevada Water Authority would have just unsnapped its holsters.

Facing scores of angry eastern Nevadans saying their way of life was being placed in jeopardy, the water authority’s board of directors instructed its staff on Thursday to continue working on permits to build a 300-plus-mile pipeline so water from the Great Basin can be drawn south.

The vote and the four-hour hearing that accompanied it were unnecessary. But it was a public demonstration that the water authority’s general manager, Pat Mulroy, had gathered a formidable posse — one with the political clout and financial backing to counter the mounting opposition to her proposed pipeline from White Pine County.

“The rhetoric (of opponents) has been that the new board doesn’t support us and this move,” Mulroy said after the vote. “It’s important to take this position to continue the process because we still have millions to spend in this permitting process.”

As in a scene from an old John Wayne movie, adversaries had queued up on each side of a line drawn in sand.

A cadre of developers and business advocates voiced their support of the pipeline, countering the arguments of environmentalists, national parks advocates, American Indians, and residents who say their livelihoods would be threatened by plans to pump 50,000 acre-feet of water from their rural Snake Valley basin to Las Vegas.

The mood was tense, but participants were polite in the main meeting room where about 100 people found seats or space along the walls. Another 170 filled a second room in the Molasky Corporate Center and a room at the county Government Center down the street where live feeds were provided.

At least for the crowd in the water authority boardroom, it was wedding-style seating: split down the middle. Dozens of union workers, their hard hats beneath their seats, filled the back rows for the first two hours, drinking coffee and answering cell phones. They were there to show support for the pipeline, which they believe will put hundreds of their peers to work.

In the front of the room sat dozens of nervous and angry Snake Valley residents who endured a six-hour bus rides across the state to be at the meeting. Some of them brought their grandchildren; others called on the water authority to think of its political legacy. A woman cried because she would have no where to go if the project’s worst projections come true and the valley is sucked dry.

None of the arguments were new. But both sides wanted to weigh in one more time to show they have not lost their passion over the project that’s been in the works for a quarter century.

The Bureau of Land Management, the agency that will decide whether the pipeline gets built if the water authority can acquire water rights in Snake Valley, expects to release its environmental impact statement on the project early next year for public comment.

The water authority has acquired or purchased water rights in four out of five basins from which it has requested water. Much of the opposition comes from the fifth: Snake Valley, a high desert enclave of farmers and ranchers who live on the Utah-Nevada border in the shadow of Great Basin National Park. A recently proposed agreement between Utah and Nevada over use of water in the basin would require the Southern Nevada Water Authority to not pursue water rights in Snake Valley for 10 years.

And that’s OK with Mulroy, because she says the pipeline may not be built for 10 years anyway.

With growth in the Las Vegas Valley stunted by the recession, demand for water to fuel growth is on hold. But because of the continuing drought along the Colorado River basin, the water authority says water from eastern Nevada may eventually be needed to sustain Las Vegas.

With Thursday’s vote, the water authority will keep spending millions of dollars to pay for the environmental studies ordered by the BLM to assess the effects of the pipeline and how to offset them. Had the board voted no, years of work by Mulroy’s staff to find water and secure the water rights in other parts of Nevada for taps in Southern Nevada would have been for naught and she would have had to go back to the drawing board.

Mulroy says the project won’t be built unless it’s “absolutely necessary,” but even that’s a changing concept.

“This ground water project has been around for a long time,” Mulroy said at the meeting. “It has changed character and purpose many times over.”

Two years ago, Mulroy said the pipeline was needed to support Las Vegas’ growth. Then the development bubble burst, taking thousands of Las Vegas families down with it. Today, the developers still say they need the water for future development, but Mulroy says the pipeline is the valley’s guarantee of a stable water supply.

The water level at Lake Mead, source of 90 percent of our water, has dropped 100 feet in the past decade, and global warming models predict continued and worsening drought conditions along the Colorado River over the next 50 to 100 years. Anticipating that, the water authority is building a third and deeper intake, or straw, to pump water from the lake. But if lake levels drop to the point where that intake is needed, Nevada’s rationed share of the lake’s water could be cut, leading to more severe conservation measures and rationing.

Conservationists say the city can grow without more water. Basic water saving measures such as the water authority’s popular cash-for-turf program have significantly cut water use. Mandating pool cover use, providing rebates for installing low-flow toilets and faucets or requiring water conserving technology in new developments would be cheaper, easier and have a greater effect, said Scott Rutledge, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League.

But the pipeline has 25 years of momentum behind it, and the water authority seems intent on building it whether Las Vegas needs it or not, opponents said.

“This phrase ‘absolutely necessary’ keeps coming up, but no one wants to define what that really means,” said pipeline foe Launce Rake, spokesman for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “For some developers who want to build half a dozen golf courses, absolutely necessary was yesterday. But I don’t think your average Las Vegan shares that definition.”

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