Las Vegas Sun

April 20, 2024

Nevada leaders largely silent on pipeline controversy

Brian Sandoval

Brian Sandoval

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

Last week, the public got a chance to voice its opinions on the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s pipeline project.

The state’s elected officials, meanwhile, have for years been largely silent on the proposal to send water from rural Nevada to Las Vegas, trying to find a neutral position on the project.

Regardless of the outcome, the project could have enormous repercussions. For proponents, it’s a 300-mile lifeline for Las Vegas, the engine of the state’s economy. For opponents, it’s is a boondoggle, potentially damaging the environment and costing residents between $3.5 billion and $15 billion, including financing costs for water that might not be needed given the slowing of growth in Southern Nevada.

Officials’ silence on the matter recalls Theodore Roosevelt’s famous phrase: “A typical vice of American politics is the avoidance of saying anything real on real issues.”

The Sun asked top elected officials this week if they support or oppose the Water Authority’s pipeline project. Their answers were far from blunt.

• Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican from Reno, said as he did during his campaign that the project is an issue for the state engineer. The engineer, who is conducting the ongoing hearings, is appointed by the director of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, who is appointed by the Republican governor.

• Sen. Harry Reid, the Democrat from Searchlight who sponsored federal legislation that had raised $285 million for the Water Authority as of 2008, said in a statement this week: “It’s important for Nevada to improve its water security by diversifying our limited water supplies and continuing to improve water conservation and reuse efforts.” The Colorado River, which provides 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water, is a “limited resource susceptible to drought and rising temperatures.”

His office would not expand on Reid’s statement to clarify his position on the pipeline.

• Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican from Carson City, would only say it is a state issue. “The last thing Nevada needs is federal involvement in how we allocate and manage our water,” he said in a statement.

• Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Las Vegas Democrat who’s running against Heller for Senate, was asked by the Sun this summer if she supported the project. She responded with a candid, “I do,” but then quickly retreated: “It depends on the negative impact it could have.”

(This week, her office offered milquetoast: “We need to find a solution to our region’s water supply challenges that strikes the right balance in meeting the needs of all communities involved.”)

The issue is certainly perilous for any politician seeking to appeal to voters statewide. It has passionate opponents and backers who represent the most powerful interests in the state.

Environmentalists and residents in counties such as White Pine say the project would devastate the way of life in rural Nevada. Costs have ballooned, they argue, and they believe they have momentum. A particularly wet winter raised Lake Mead while growth in the region has slowed to a drip.

Michael Ginsburg, Southern Nevada director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Southern Nevada, said that when the project was conceived in the late 1980s, “Pretty much everyone was in support of it. It was hard to find an elected official who was against it in Clark County.” Today, he said, “several elected officials are at least on the fence, or saying, ‘let’s do our due diligence, see what the project costs, what’s its benefit.’ ”

But the supporters of the project, including the big casinos, labor, contractors and developers, cannot be dismissed by anyone who’s in or seeking elected office.

“If there’s an elected official who hasn’t taken a position, in their heart they know it,” said Danny Thompson, head of the AFL-CIO. “They do have to make a decision. If they come out against it, there’s a price to that too. You’re gambling, literally, with the state.”

Opponents say they fear the state water engineer could be pressured.

“The process should be as depoliticized as possible,” state Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said. “Las Vegas is the thirsty gorilla. Clearly they have the political power. It’s reassuring their decisions are made on science and fact, not on political considerations.”

Thompson noted that state lawmakers have proposed bills that would have killed the project. Each of those bills has died.

J.C. Davis, a spokesman for the Water Authority, said the agency’s board, made up of local elected officials from throughout Clark County, voted 6-0 to move forward with the project.

Although it affects most of the state, the governor is not required to make a decision on the pipeline case, Davis said. “The Nevada state engineer is responsible for adjudicating water rights.”

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