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Southern Nevada first looked to the Virgin River for additional water supplies in 1970 but never seriously pursued the idea until area growth exploded in the late 1980s, a Las Vegas water official said.

Patricia Mulroy, general manager of both the Southern Nevada Water Authority and Las Vegas Valley Water District, said a report by the state's water conservation division in 1970 suggested tapping into the Virgin River to supplement Colorado River water supplies for the Las Vegas area.But Mulroy said the idea was pushed aside until a sudden surge in growth in 1988 and 1989 left local officials worried that the area's Colorado River allocation would be enough for future growth.

"What happened in 88 and 89 was unheard of," Mulroy said.

Mulroy said normal growth rates of 5 percent to 6 percent were expected for the two years but that water demand increased 17 percent to 21 percent instead.

Mulroy's testimony came as public hearings opened Monday on a controversial plan to import water to southern Nevada from the Virgin River.

Southern Nevada water officials are negotiating with the Virgin Valley Water District and the Bunkerville Irrigation Co. on importing the water, plans that would cost an estimated $638 million.

Some 15 individuals and groups have filed official protests with the state over the plan.

State engineer Michael Turnipseed opened the hearing for public comment shortly after it began, but there was no one at the meeting to speak either for or against the proposal.

A representative of the environmental group Citizen Alert protested the opening of the hearing for public comment, saying that Turnipseed's office in past hearings had allowed public comment at the end of the hearings.

Turnipseed said he would consider opening the hearing for additional public comment as it progresses.

The hearing comes more than four years after the Las Vegas Valley Water District announced it would seek state approval to import water from rural areas of the state.

The hearings scheduled this week and later this month deal only with a proposal to import water from the Virgin River. The river originates in Utah and flows through Arizona into Nevada, near Mesquite, 80 miles northeast of here.

Tapping the Virgin River is part of a plan that also includes pumping water through a pipeline from rural areas of Clark, Nye, White Pine and Lincoln counties.

Rural counties are fighting the proposal, with officials calling the effort a "water grab."

Southern Nevada officials say the Las Vegas Valley could begin running low on water after the turn of the century, impairing growth, unless new water sources are found.

The water district has applied for 60,000 acre-feet of surface water rights from the Virgin River and another 10,000 acre-feet of ground water in the Virgin River Valley.

Turnipseed plans hearings throughout this week, followed by a second week of hearings starting Jan. 24.

The hearings have been delayed since September 1992 because of scheduling conflicts and a lack of funds to conduct the sessions.