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Ranchers, politicians celebrate water victory

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Ranchers, lawmakers, county commissioners and the lieutenant governor celebrated Monday, following the Legislature's unopposed passage of a resolution about the Utah-Nevada groundwater issue.

HJR1 passed the Senate by 26-0, three not voting, and the House by 73-2, two not voting. The measure concerns plans by the Las Vegas Water District to pump underground water from two aquifers and send it to the Las Vegas area. One of these is in Snake Valley, whose water is both in eastern Nevada and western Utah.

The Snake Valley project would use about 27,000 acre-feet of water, which worries ranchers and conservationists concerning the impact on resources in both states.

The resolution calls on Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. to consider the consequences of the project, involve the citizens in any agreement with Nevada and "refrain from entering into the ... agreement with Nevada until scientific studies have been completed."

Cecil Garland, a rancher from Callao, Juab County, who has headed opposition to the project, said the western desert region does not have a surplus of water — "we have a deficit."

Drought and use of the aquifer already are impacting the land, he said. Garland expressed a wish for "a return to a wetter cycle" of weather.

Meanwhile, the resolution — with its call for involvement by local residents in decision-making — sets a precedent for future decisions, he said.

Members of the Millard County Commission presented Lt. Gov. Gary R. Herbert a copy of the resolution "on behalf of Millard County and all the counties in western Utah," said Daron Smith, Millard County commissioner. A bill in the Legislature seeks $2 million to fund a drilling project that will help determine the extent of the groundwater, he added.

The issue "means the world to us," said fellow Millard County Commissioner John Cooper. "Water is king."

Herbert said he and Huntsman are doing what they can to develop water and "conserve what we already have. ... We are committed to make sure that Utah's water is protected. We want to make sure the science is done appropriately."

Dean Baker, who lives in Baker, Nev., and farms on both side of the state border, said springs are dried up and vegetation is dead in parts of Snake Valley where underground water is pumped. But the amount that's used, he said, is only "a drop in the bucket" compared with the Nevada project.

E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com