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Major water ruling issued

By BRENDAN RILEY, 7/9/2008, Capital Press

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - A bid to pump more than 11 billion gallons of groundwater a year from three rural Nevada valleys to Las Vegas was cut to just over 6 billion gallons and approved Wednesday by the state's water engineer.

The ruling by state Engineer Tracy Taylor follows a hearing that ended in February with the Southern Nevada Water Authority saying it's entitled to the water from Delamar, Dry Lake and Cave Valleys and opponents warning that the pumping could have a catastrophic impact.

SNWA representatives had contended the water authority met all requirements for the pumping and critics' disaster scenarios are unfounded.

The Great Basin Water Network opposed the plan, saying SNWA tried to hide evidence that the pumping may harm existing water users and the environment in rural Nevada because there's not enough water in the valleys for long-term exportation.

Taylor said use of the water in the amounts he approved "will not unduly limit future growth and development" in the three valleys, all in central Lincoln County.

But before any water is pumped, Taylor wants to see more biological and hydrologic studies. He also said that pumping will be halted or modified if it proves "detrimental to the public interest or is found to not be environmentally sound."

Allen Biaggi, the state's conservation-natural resources chief and Taylor's boss, said the ruling shows "the strength of Nevada's water law in balancing the needs of its citizens, protecting existing water rights and protecting Nevada's natural resources."

Kay Brothers, SNWA's deputy general manager, said the water authority recognized the state engineer's "somewhat conservative" approach to water management in Nevada, the nation's most arid state, and wouldn't challenge his decision.

"We respect the way he manages the state's water basins," Brothers said. "If that's what he's comfortable with, so are we."

Brothers noted that the valleys, located between about 75 miles and 125 miles from Las Vegas, will be the first tapped for the agency's massive pipeline project, adding that Taylor's decision "is exciting to us because it has added water that makes this project stronger."

While the SNWA application sought more than 11.3 billion gallons of groundwater a year from the valleys and the ruling allows about 6.1 billion gallons, Susan Lynn of the Great Basin Water Network said, "It's way too much considering there are a whole lot of downstream groundwater users who rely on that groundwater flow that is going to be intercepted."

Launce Rake, also representing the network, said a legal effort to overturn the ruling or have it revised by Taylor "is certainly a prospect. It's something we will be looking at carefully as we review this decision."

Rake added that the valleys already are "really stressed" by drought conditions, adding, "This decision can only exacerbate those issues."

The SNWA project opponents include ranchers and farmers, as well as local irrigation companies, a water board, the Sierra Club, Nevada Cattlemen's Association and White Pine County which borders Lincoln County.

The project is backed by casino executives, developers, union representatives and others who point to water conservation efforts in the Las Vegas area and who warn of an economic downturn affecting the entire state unless the city has enough water to keep growing.

Lincoln County initially opposed the plan but reached an agreement with the water authority on which groundwater basins can developed. The agreement also allows for use of SNWA's pipeline, for a price, by the county.

In a related case involving SNWA's application to pump 16 billion gallons of water a year from Snake Valley, on the Nevada-Utah border in White Pine County, Taylor rejected bids by three Indian tribes, local government entities in Nevada and Utah and others for "interested persons" status in those proceedings.

That ruling, which restricts participation in the Snake Valley hearings scheduled to start on Tuesday, went against the Great Basin Water Network, the Wells Band Te-Moak Tribe, Ely Shoshone Tribe and Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation.

Taylor also rejected the status for Salt Lake and Utah counties in Utah, Trout Unlimited, Water Keepers, the North Snake Valley Water Association and Central Nevada Regional Water Authority, representing six Nevada counties.

SNWA hopes to begin delivering rural groundwater to Las Vegas by 2015. Its eventual goal is to import enough water to serve more than 230,000 homes, in addition to about 400,000 households already getting its water. Cost of its 200-mile-long pipeline project has been estimated at anywhere from $2 billion to $3.5 billion.
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