ELY — A decade-long legal battle over a plan to pump groundwater from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas resumed this week with lawyers on both sides arguing over differing parts of a former state engineer’s decision to block the plan.
The Las Vegas Review Journal reports a judge isn’t expected to issue a ruling for months after hearing arguments Tuesday and Wednesday.
A lawyer for the Southern Nevada Water Authority backing the project asked Judge Robert Estes to overturn parts of the decision issued last year by the former state engineer, which denied the authority’s applications for permits to build a pipeline to funnel groundwater 300 miles (482 kilometers) from four rural valleys in White Pine and Lincoln counties near the Utah border.
Paul Taggart argued that thenState Engineer Jason King “misinterpreted” a directive issued by Estes in 2013 that led to the state engineer denying the permits. He said if that decision is upheld it would have lasting consequences on the future of water development projects in the state.
“If we can’t have the water, then that would be the determination that there is no water for anyone,” Taggart said. “If that’s what it is, then no one can develop water in this state.”
Opponents of the plan include environmentalists, tribes, Great Basin ranchers, two counties in Utah and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints. They argue the judge should uphold the denial of permits because the water authority’s plans could cause wells in the area to dry up and would provide those affected with only token compensation.
“This almost guarantees and really opens the door to wildly unsustainable groundwater management,” said Simeon Herskovits, the attorney representing many of the pipeline’s opponents. He said the authority’s proposal, if approved, would allow for “open-ended, limitless draw down” of the groundwater basins.
The roles were reversed when it came to the state engineer’s decision to uphold the water authority’s proposed mitigation plan.
The pipeline’s opponents claimed tribal nations’ due process rights were denied and said the plan did little to prevent possible degradation of the surrounding area, including a grove of swamp cedars in White Pine’s Spring Valley that’s considered sacred to Shoshone tribes.
Most of the two-day hearing rehashed technical and jargon-heavy arguments about water law, hydrology and geology in front of a packed courtroom. Many of the same lawyers made virtually the same arguments before the same judge about six years ago.
Southern Nevada officials have pushed for plans to pipe water from rural Nevada to Las Vegas since 1989. The authority says the pipeline, with a price tag of roughly $15 billion, would supply water for 170,000 new homes.
In 2010, the state Supreme Court struck down two previous rulings that gave the water authority almost 79,000 acre-feet a year from the same valleys. In that ruling, the high court directed the state engineer to hold new hearings on the authority’s groundwater applications.
A year later, King approved the authority’s plans. But after another appeal, Estes ordered him to recalculate whether there was enough water available in the valleys’ groundwater basins to match the proposed supply demands. That eventually led to the state engineer grudgingly rejecting the proposal last year.