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Snake Valley water split angers Utahns

DELTA — They weren't wearing six shooters and they didn't bring a rope, but it's clear residents in Millard and Juab counties are thirsting for a fight against Nevada, unwilling to relinquish precious water from the Snake Valley aquifer.

"Utah better not give up its options," said Juab County resident Cecil Garland. "You give up your water and you have given up your future."

Garland was one of dozens of residents who turned out Tuesday night to vent against a draft agreement between Nevada and Utah on the division of the water in the Snake Valley Aquifer.

Garland, who has lived for several years in the north end of Snake Valley, said he has watched as the 40 or so springs on his property have steadily grown dry.

"I've seen how the water table has already dropped 10 feet," he said. "I don't need any computer models to tell me the water has dried up."

The meeting hosted by the Carbon County Commission reiterated local concerns that the draft agreement between Nevada and Utah is a water grab that will leave already drought-struggling western counties in Utah with a veritable dust bowl that winds could carry to the Wasatch Front.

Surveys passed out at Tuesday's meeting are soliciting information with an aim to propose a "counter" agreement to Gov. Gary Herbert that offers "fairer " solutions, said Mark Ward, with the Utah Association of Counties.

"I can't even begin to fathom," why an agreement crafted in part by Utah's negotiating team would result in such an inequitable division of water, Ward said. "We are at the end of the ditch."

The chorus of criticism has its genesis in a plan by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to tap the Snake Valley aquifer for a 285-mile pipeline that will convey 50,000 acre feet of water a year to thirsty Las Vegas households.

Ward has been strong opponent to the draft agreement on behalf of Millard, Juab, Tooele, Salt Lake, and Utah counties, which he says on are record opposing the water split because it is tilted too heavily in favor of Nevada.

"The vast majority of land that is groundwater dependent is in Utah," supporting crop and pasture irrigation, municipal and other domestic water systems, and a vast array of wildlife and vegetation, Ward said.

"The split is pro-Nevada," ignoring geographic, scientific and historical use, he said. "All systems on the Utah side will take a hit."

The agreement was penned after four years of negotiating by two teams representing natural resource officials from Nevada and Utah, as well as water engineers.

Public comment is being accepted through Sept. 30 on the agreement, which divides "allocated" and "unallocated" water from the aquifer and is intended to recognize existing water rights and provide for a sharing of potential "reserve" water.

Utah, with its system of water use already in place, gets 55,000 acre feet allocated water, while Nevada is relegated to 12,000 acre feet.

Critics say the disparity comes into play when unallocated water is divvied up, with Utah only getting 5,000 acre feet, while Nevada lays claim to 36,000 acre feet.

If studies show the aquifer can sustain tapping of "reserve" water — the water no one is quite sure is there yet — Nevada's share is 18,000 acre feet, while Utah gets 6,000 acre feet.

Ward and others say the division works out 7-to-1 in Nevada's favor because it gets so much of the unallocated groundwater and the unknown reserves.

Crafters of the draft agreement counter that overall, the split evenly divides 132,000 acre feet of water between the two states.

Nevada's state engineer was set to hold "evidentiary" hearings in 2011 on the viability of tapping the Snake Valley Aquifer — if the science will support such a draw.

The draft does put on hold the water authority's application to draw the water for 10 years while additional scientific studies are completed.

In addition to a shared management plan of the aquifer's water resources, the agreement also puts in place environmental protections and the requirement that the water authority establish a mitigation fund to counter any adverse impacts to Utah water users.

But critics say the agreement, which has to be signed by the governors of both states, is premature and backs Utah's interests into a corner when science has not yet proven the aquifer can sustain the pumping.

Clayton Jeffrey with the Millard County Water Conservancy District cautioned that water not only "runs downhill, it runs toward money. There's nothing more permanent than a temporary fix."

Another meeting is set on the draft agreement at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Salt Lake County Government Center, Room N-2003.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com