Las Vegas Sun

February 26, 2024

Sun Editorial:

Restoring water rights

Governor, Legislature should revisit decision that jeopardizes state’s future

Last month the state Supreme Court dealt a serious blow to the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s long-term plans to provide water to Clark County. In a unanimous decision, the court said that the state engineer erred in giving the authority the go-ahead to start pumping water in rural areas.

That is a critical decision because the authority has water rights in northeastern Nevada and planned to pump it and send it to Las Vegas via a yet-to-be-built pipeline. If that decision goes unchanged, it will delay, if not derail, the plan and put Southern Nevada’s future in jeopardy.

Environmental and citizen groups filed the lawsuit seeking to stop the authority’s plans, alleging — among other things — that the plan will hurt the environment. The Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the lawsuit: Instead, it found that the state engineer did not comply with the law in granting the Water Authority the right to take water. The court sent the case back to District Court in White Pine County for further hearings on what should be done.

The case before the Supreme Court came down to fine points of the law and the Legislature’s intent. State law requires that in all but certain circumstances, the state engineer decide a request to pump water within a year, and that did not happen in this case — the authority’s request was filed in 1989, but it took 17 years before the state engineer acted.

The crux of the matter was a 2003 law, passed at the behest of the Water Authority, allowing the state engineer to delay on “pending” water applications. The authority’s attorneys argued that it is retroactive to all prior requests. The court, however, called the law “ambiguous” and found that the authority’s request didn’t fit the definition of pending.

The Water Authority and the state attorney general’s office are asking the court to rehear or clarify its ruling. In the meantime, lawmakers and Gov. Jim Gibbons are discussing adding the issue to the agenda for the Legislature’s upcoming special session. Gibbons is considering it because the court’s ruling has potentially put 10,000 water rights applications dating back to 1947, including those in the rural areas, in jeopardy.

Gibbons should put this on the Legislature’s agenda for the good of the state. Rural water users’ rights should be affirmed, and it is vitally important that the pipeline project move forward.

The Colorado River is the main source of Southern Nevada’s water, and it has been diminishing with the continuing drought in the West. There is no question the state needs more water to plan for the future. The authority’s critics make several claims to try to derail the pipeline plan, including calling for conservation, capping growth and arguing that the authority could build desalination plants in California in exchange for more water from Lake Mead.

The reality is that conservation in Southern Nevada is already a part of the water plan. Although it has paid benefits, there’s no question that even the best conservation program couldn’t provide enough water for future needs.

Desalination is a fine idea, and it should be considered as part of future plans, but it is terribly expensive and it will take years to build any plants. Nevada would be trading for something it can’t bank on — Lake Mead’s water levels continue to drop. And not planning for the future is foolish. Growth will certainly return to Southern Nevada as the economy recovers.

This is an urgent issue. The state can’t afford to waste any more time letting it be held up in court.

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