Federal court stalls Las Vegas water grab

Federal court slows Las Vegas water grab.

Environmental studies flawed

Staff Report

A federal court has at least temporarily stifled a major water grab in Nevada, finding that the Bureau of Land Management didn’t adequately study and disclose impacts from groundwater pumping scheme by Las Vegas. At issue are losses of wetlands and wildlife habitat that would result from the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s massive groundwater pipeline development project.

The court ruled that the BLM violated federal environmental laws by failing to demonstrate how it would compensate for the destruction of thousands of acres of wetlands and sensitive habitat in eastern Nevada.

“This is a win for wildlife and fragile habitat across eastern Nevada,” said Marc Fink, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. The BLM will have to start over and come up with plan to mitigate the project’s impacts, he said.

“This ruling raises serious questions about whether the agency can really address the severe impacts of this enormous water grab, which would destroy thousands of acres of wetlands and important habitat for many sensitive wildlife species,” Fink added.

The $15.5 billion project would deplete aquifers and springs in the  eastern Nevada desert, pumping it more than 250 miles south to metropolitan Las Vegas, drying up  more than 200 square miles of habitat for sage grouse, mule deer, elk and pronghorn, including portions of the Pahranagat, Moapa Valley and Desert national wildlife refuges as well as Great Basin National Park and Basin and Range National Monument.

More than 5,500 acres of meadows, 200 springs and 33 miles of trout streams would be harmed as water tables across the region would be lowered up to 200 feet, according to the environmental studies that have been done so far.

Fink said the project would hit springs and wetlands needed by some of Nevada’s rarest species.

“The answer to Las Vegas’ long-term water needs is not to suck these eastern desert valleys dry. That could drive species to extinction by pumping an unsustainable amount of ancient groundwater through a massive pipeline.”

In 2013 the BLM granted a right-of-way for the 250-mile pipeline to the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). The Center for Biological Diversity challenged the BLM’s analysis for the project, and the case was later consolidated with a challenge brought by a broad coalition, including White Pine County and affected Indian tribes.

In a related case in state court, the Seventh Judicial District Court of Nevada issued a decision — sought by the Center and allies in the Great Basin Water Network — that stripped the SNWA of 83,988 acre-feet per year of groundwater for the pipeline project due to severe deficiencies in its analysis.

The judge characterized it as “likely the largest interbasin transfer of water in U.S. history.” These water rights are back before the Nevada state engineer, with hearings scheduled for late September.

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