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Residents air concerns over Snake Valley pipeline project

Opponents of pumping water from the Snake Valley aquifer for Las Vegas households were assured that a draft agreement dividing the water between the two states protects the interests of Utah and its water users.

Critics of the proposal remain wary and say it backs Utah into a corner, allocating a precious resource when the scientific effects of the pumping remain unknown.

"What are the safeguards to prevent politics from trumping science?" asked Don Ries, who was among dozens of concerned residents thirsty for answers who turned out Tuesday at a meeting on a draft agreement dividing the water in the Snake Valley Aquifer between Nevada and Utah.

Four years of negotiations among representatives from both states, including state engineers, resulted in the document, which was precipitated by the Southern Nevada Water Authority's application to pump 50,000 acre feet of water from the aquifer and pipe it to Las Vegas households.

Snake Valley straddles the two states, and while most of the land is in Utah, the majority of the water originates in the mountains of Nevada, giving rise to the claim it should be a shared resource among the two states.

Opponents aren't buying that and say Nevada should not quench its water needs at the expense of Utah's environment.

Once it is pumped, "I don't think they will ever turn the water off," one resident said. "It will be a political disaster for you (the negotiating team) and a biological and environmental disaster for us."

Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Indian Reservations, said the agreement impacts two tribes which were not consulted.

"It makes us look like we are extinct already," he said.

The negotiating team has been holding a series of public meetings to air provisions of the agreement and listen to concerns prior to the conclusion of a public-comment period Sept. 14. Tuesday's meeting at the state Department of Environmental Quality will be followed by a final hearing Thursday in Las Vegas.

Subject to modification based on the comments received, the agreement would then be penned by state natural-resource heads at the consent of both governors within 30 to 60 days.

"This agreement sets up a framework," said Allen Biaggi, Nevada's director of Conservation and Natural Resources. "Let me make it clear: This does not authorize any pumping."

The agreement puts the water in the aquifer into three categories, acknowledging existing water rights and setting aside water in reserves.

"None of us knows exactly what is there," said Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. "That is why we want this agreement to be bendable."

Critics of the Las Vegas pipeline project say the environmental risk to Utah is too high. Native vegetation could be jeopardized, die off and leave dust storms with impacts that could stretch to the Wasatch Front.

Styler said those environmental protections are in place with this agreement, which requires the water authority to maintain a $3 million mitigation fund.

The agreement also puts in abeyance for 10 years the authority's application for water rights with the Nevada state engineer, who was scheduled to hold hearings on the issue in 2011.

Instead, the 10-year time frame will give both states and the U.S. Geological Survey a window to conduct additional studies on the amount of water available for appropriation and what impacts could result.

Opponents, including Millard County, say the agreement is premature and forces Utah to give up its sovereignty.

But Styler and Mike Quealy with the Utah Attorney General's Office said the agreement will do just the opposite, ensuring Utah has a say in the appropriation of the water.

A legal disagreement between the two states would have to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, which Quealy said will not take up cases that are speculative and built on what-ifs.

"There has to be presently existing harm. In this situation, we don't have any harm" at this point, he said, adding that the court would not provide any of the environmental-protection mandates that are in place with the agreement.

Styler said absent the agreement, the states would simply be left to manage the aquifer's resources within their borders.

"We don't have to have it," Styler said. "We could both go our own ways, but eventually, we will have discord."

The draft agreement can be downloaded at www.waterrights.gov, and comments may be e-mailed to snakevalley@utah.gov or snakevalley@water.nv.gov through Sept. 14.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com