Nevada’s fragile desert spring ecosystems safe for at least a little while longer
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — A Nevada judge this week blocked a Las Vegas water grab that would rob future generations of precious groundwater resources.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority had proposed siphoning 37 billion gallons from remote underground aquifers in a plan that was challenged by the Center for Biological Diversity and its allies in the Great Basin Water Network, as well as by White Pine County, Nev.
According to federal studies, the groundwater pumping, hundreds of miles north of the city, would destroy more than 137,000 acres of wildlife habitat by lowering groundwater tables by up to 200 feet in many areas — all to fuel unsustainable growth in the desert metropolis.
In 2011, the Nevada Division of Water Resources gave the project a thumbs-up by allocating 84,000 acre-feet of ancient groundwater a year to the Southern Nevada Water Authority for export to Las Vegas, but Senior Judge Robert Estes of the Seventh Judicial District Court of Nevada said that allocation is unfair to future Nevadans and not in the public interest.
State officials violated their own standards for sustainable water development, making a decision based on incomplete science, the judge wrote.
“No one really knows what will happen with large-scale pumping in Spring Valley … granting the appropriated is premature … the ruling is arbitrary and capricious,” Estes said, remanding the issue back to the State Engineer.
“This is a historic ruling and a great victory for wildlife in Nevada and Utah, rural communities and families, and for the citizens of Las Vegas,” said the Center’s Las Vegas-based senior scientist Rob Mrowka. “Dozens of species would have faced certain extinction had the groundwater mining project moved forward. The existing water rights of communities and families would have also been impacted and, the residents of Las Vegas would have been buried under a $15.5 billion mortgage for a pipeline that isn’t needed,” Mrowka said.
The battle over the water of the ancient carbonate aquifer in Nevada and Utah started in 1989. The Great Basin Water Network, a coalition of environmentalists, rural communities and families, sportsmen and Native tribes was formed in 2004 to fight the plan to mine ancient aquifers that also feed above ground springs and streams and pipe them 300 miles to support unsustainable growth in the Las Vegas Valley.
“By setting the clock back to 1989, the court has provided an opportunity for the Water Authority and its board to explore previously ignored alternatives to this destructive project,” Mrowka said. “Rather than robbing the desert of its precious little water, we should be looking at sustainable ways for Las Vegas to live within its means without destroying the environment and rural communities,” he said.
The court ruling made it clear that state officials don’t really know how the groundwater mining would affect the ecology of the distant valleys, and that there is not nearly enough data to make a valid decision.
“Granting water rights to SNWA is premature without knowing the impacts to existing water rights holders and not having a clear standard to identify impacts, conflicts or unreasonable environmental effects so that mitigation may proceed in a timely manner,” Judge Estes wrote, basically sending water developers back to the drawing board.
The December 2012 decision by the Bureau of Land Management to grant a right-of-way for the needed pipeline is also opposed by the Center and the Water Network, and federal litigation against it is expected soon.
The court ruling: