Conservation groups prepare for court battle
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — Conservation advocates say they will challenge the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of a 250-mile pipeline project designed to drain central Nevada aquifers and deliver water to Las Vegas.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority’s groundwater development project would siphon more than 27.4 billion gallons of groundwater per year from at least four valleys in central Nevada. According to environmental groups, the project would imperil dozens of species dependent on precious surface and groundwater in the driest state in the U.S.
“The federal government’s own scientists are confirming this Las Vegas water project would be an epic environmental disaster,” said Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s really no exaggeration to say that the natural, cultural and social heritage of central Nevada is at grave risk from this project.”
Mrowka said the Center for Biological Diversity and other organizations will challenge the approval in court, claiming it violates the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act and Clean Air Act.
The BLM’s environmental study for the project discloses that more than 137,000 acres of wildlife habitat would be permanently destroyed or changed as the diversions lowers groundwater levels by up to 200 feet in some areas.
According to Mrowka, the loss of water will result in declines of species like mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, sage grouse and Bonneville cutthroat trout. At most urgent risk will be species associated with the springs and wetlands that will dry up as the water beneath them is sucked away.
“Some of Nevada’s rarest, most unique species rely on wetlands and springs,” said Mrowka. “They’ve evolved over tens of thousands of years in response to isolation and fragmentation of habitat that occurred after ice ages. The Las Vegas water grab could undo all that and drive them extinct in the blink of an eye.”
Many of these species are often found in only one or two springs on Earth. As the springs are dewatered and flows are altered and eventually stopped, at least 25 species of Great Basin springsnails will be pushed to, or over, the brink of extinction. Also affected will be 14 species of desert fish, including the Moapa dace and White River springfish; frogs and toads will fare little better, with four species severely threatened by the dewatering.
Other impacts from the project, disclosed in the BLM’s impact statement today, include ground-level subsidence in excess of five feet on more than 240 square miles, as well as tens of thousands of tons of new dust generated from de-watered and denuded lands.
The BLM study says the project can move forward under an adaptive management scenario designed to detect and mitigate impacts, but conservation groups aren’t confident that the scheme will work. The lag time between pumping and observed impacts would make mitigation very difficult, and leaving the Southern Nevada Water Authority in charge of the monitoring is akin to having the fox guard the hen house.
The study also assumes the water authority will have adequate funds available to conduct the monitoring and successfully mitigate damage. Experiences from a similar situation in the Owens Valley of California reveal that tens of millions of dollars are spent annually to mitigate just one problem: dust.
“Given the over $15.5 billion price tag of just constructing and financing the pipe, promises to mitigate the impacts are frankly laughable,” Mrowka said.
Elected officials on the authority’s board of directors can still stop the foolhardy project by denying the authority’s request to initiate it.
“This is a critical time for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, its board and all elected officials to take action to put the brakes on this disastrous and unneeded project,” said Mrowka. “There’s still time for the authority to table the project and begin the much-needed dialogue with the community on better options for meeting the Las Vegas Valley’s future water needs — chief among them, rational growth management.”