BLM Approves Southern Nevada Water Authority Water Pipeline Project

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Water providers along the Front Range that rely on transmountain water from the Colorado River Basin are looking closely at the possibility of a future call on the river from the lower basin states as most transmountain diversions are junior in priority to the Colorado River Compact.

A recent study released by the Bureau of Reclamation predicts future supply shortfalls some 3.2 million acre-feet.

Southern Nevada is planning to mine groundwater in the Great Basin to bolster their supplies. For Colorado that might be a good thing since it should help decrease demand on suface supplies from the Colorado River.

On December 27 the Bureau of Land Management gave the go ahead for the 234 mile pipeline and collection system. Here’s their release:

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will publish a notice in the Federal Register on Friday, Dec. 28, announcing the availability of the Record of Decision (ROD) for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) Clark, Lincoln, and White Pine Counties Groundwater Development Project. The notice is available on the Federal Register electronic desk on Thursday, Dec. 27. The purpose of the project is to construct a groundwater delivery system to the Las Vegas Valley.

The Lincoln County Conservation, Recreation and Development Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-424), directed the Secretary of the Interior to issue a right-of-way grant on Federal land in Lincoln and Clark counties, Nev., to construct a groundwater delivery system.

After extensive environmental analysis, consideration of public comments, and application of pertinent Federal laws and policies, the Department of the Interior has decided to grant the SNWA a right-of-way for the construction, operation, maintenance, and termination of the mainline water pipeline, main power lines, pump stations, regulating tanks, water treatment facility and other ancillary facilities of the project.

The decision authorizes the BLM to issue a right-of-way grant to the SNWA for the preferred alternative as analyzed in the Final Environmental Impact Statement issued in August 2012. The BLM will conduct subsequent environmental analyses for the future facilities and groundwater development.

The Nevada State Engineer is the authority for approving or denying water right applications. Up to 83,988 acre-feet per year (afy) of groundwater could be transported through the proposed facilities from the SNWA’s water rights in Spring, Delamar, Dry Lake, and Cave valleys, and up to 41,000 afy of water rights from the SNWA’s private ranches and agreements with Lincoln County. No water would be developed in Snake Valley.

The ROD, signed by Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes, constitutes the final decision of the Department of the Interior. Any challenge to the decision must be brought in Federal district court.

Click here to go to the BLM webpage for the EIS. You can download a copy of the ROD there.

From the Associated Press (Sandra Chereb) via MSNBC.com:

“This is a huge milestone for southern Nevada,” said Patricia Mulroy, the water authority’s general manager. She said being able to “draw upon a portion of our own state’s renewable groundwater supplies reduces our dependence on the drought-prone Colorado River and provides a critical safety net.”

The Colorado River flows into Lake Mead, southern Nevada’s main water source. A recent study projected moderate to severe water shortages over the next several decades. Lake Mead’s surface level has dropped about 100 feet since 2000 because of ongoing drought and increasing demand from the seven states and more than 25 million people sharing Colorado River water rights. “What the study really told us was that we must prepare for a much drier future and that we can’t count on the Colorado River to sustain our community in the way it once did,” Mulroy said.

Environmentalists decried the decision, which comes two decades after the concept began to take shape and after years of litigation. More lawsuits are expected to follow.

Nevada’s state engineer, Jason King, granted the water authority permission in March to pump up to 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from four rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties. An acre-foot is the volume of water needed to cover an acre of land with water 12 inches deep — about 326,000 gallons. King’s rulings are being challenged in state court.

The pipeline approved by the BLM Thursday is needed to deliver that water to the southern Nevada’s population center.

Simeon Herskovits, an attorney in Taos, N.M., representing a coalition of ranchers, farmers, rural local governments and environmentalists, said the BLM decision was being reviewed but added that unless “serious deficiencies” in an earlier environmental study have been corrected, the decision to approve the pipeline cannot “be scientifically, economically or legally sound.”

The BLM’s decision follows findings made in November by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the project would not significantly affect about a dozen threatened or endangered species. Environmentalists say otherwise. “Some of Nevada’s rarest, most unique species rely on wetlands and springs,” said Rob Mrowka with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Las Vegas water grab could undo all that and drive them extinct in the blink of any eye.”

BLM spokeswoman JoLynn Worley said the decision authorizes the “main conveyance and support facilities” to be built on federally owned land. It’s the last administrative ruling by the federal agency, and further challenges will be handled by the courts.

From Chance of Rain (Emily Green):

WHAT western water managers preach and what western water managers do is often contradictory. This much can be relied on: inconsistency starts at the top. Only this month a long-awaited report issued by the federal Bureau of Reclamation emphasized the need for conservation over big infrastructure projects. And we can trust its conclusions in that pointlessly hyped McGuffin projects such as diverting the Mississippi to the dry West or towing Alaskan icebergs to San Diego will not happen any time soon. However, only weeks after the release of the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, during the dead time between Christmas and New Year, Reclamation’s parent agency, the US Department of Interior, green-lighted the driving of a massive pipeline from Las Vegas hundreds of miles north into the Great Basin. This is the opposite of conservation over big infrastructure and its approval comes in spite of clearly devastating implications for thousands of square miles across the Great Basin.

Where, you might wonder, were our vaunted environmental regulations in all this? The short answer is that these laws and the agencies meant to enforce them are every bit as successful protecting our natural resources as the Securities and Exchange Commission is policing Wall Street. The Southern Nevada Water Authority deputy general manager who for many years fronted the Vegas pipeline once bragged to a local television reporter that she could get anything permitted. To judge by this week’s Record of Decision, she appears to be right. Watch enough projects go through environmental impact review and it’s hard not to conclude that this notionally protective scrutiny is nothing more than a line item on an infrastructure project budget. While reviews too rarely protect the environment, the expense turns out to be valuable to prospectors such as Las Vegas. Feigning diligence proves a useful inoculant against liability.

From the Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial staff:

Although the plan has been in the works ifor 25 years, congratulations may still be premature. Ms. Mulroy has little doubt more anti-development lawsuits are on the way.

In fact, the water authority would just as soon not build this project, which comes with a price tag variously estimated from $2 billion to $15 billion. Unfortunately, changing the law of the Colorado to allow interstate water purchases at market rates – the best solution – is still not politically feasible. Though certainly, if that day ever comes, it will help Nevada’s case to be able to say everything else has been tried.

From the Las Vegas Sun (Cy Ryan):

Initial briefs are scheduled to be filed Jan. 31 in lawsuits attempting to block the Southern Nevada Water Authority from building a pipeline to siphon water from Northern Nevada to Las Vegas.

The lawsuits seek to overturn a decision by state Engineer Jason King to allow pumping 83,988 acre feet of water a year from four rural Nevada valleys.

The Bureau of Land Management last week permitted the Water Authority to build the $15 million proposed pipeline on federal lands.

Scott Huntley, a spokesman for the authority, said a vote to start construction won’t be taken until conditions on the Colorado River dictate it. He said earlier that 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water supply comes from the river, which is subject to drought.

The state Attorney General’s Office, which is defending the decision to allow the pipeline, says oral arguments in the lawsuits are scheduled for June 13-14 in District Court in Ely.

The suits say the pipeline will interfere with existing water rights and damage the environment.

From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):

The Southern Nevada Water Authority’s groundwater development project would siphon more than 27.4 billion gallons of groundwater per year from at least four valleys in central Nevada. According to environmental groups, the project would imperil dozens of species dependent on precious surface and groundwater in the driest state in the U.S.

“The federal government’s own scientists are confirming this Las Vegas water project would be an epic environmental disaster,” said Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“It’s really no exaggeration to say that the natural, cultural and social heritage of central Nevada is at grave risk from this project.”

Mrowka said the Center for Biological Diversity and other organizations will challenge the approval in court, claiming it violates the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act and Clean Air Act.

The BLM’s environmental study for the project discloses that more than 137,000 acres of wildlife habitat would be permanently destroyed or changed as the diversions lowers groundwater levels by up to 200 feet in some areas.

According to Mrowka, the loss of water will result in declines of species like mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, sage grouse and Bonneville cutthroat trout. At most urgent risk will be species associated with the springs and wetlands that will dry up as the water beneath them is sucked away.

“Some of Nevada’s rarest, most unique species rely on wetlands and springs,” said Mrowka. “They’ve evolved over tens of thousands of years in response to isolation and fragmentation of habitat that occurred after ice ages. The Las Vegas water grab could undo all that and drive them extinct in the blink of an eye.”
Many of these species are often found in only one or two springs on Earth. As the springs are dewatered and flows are altered and eventually stopped, at least 25 species of Great Basin springsnails will be pushed to, or over, the brink of extinction. Also affected will be 14 species of desert fish, including the Moapa dace and White River springfish; frogs and toads will fare little better, with four species severely threatened by the dewatering.

Other impacts from the project, disclosed in the BLM’s impact statement today, include ground-level subsidence in excess of five feet on more than 240 square miles, as well as tens of thousands of tons of new dust generated from de-watered and denuded lands.

Thanks to Coyote Gulch reader Kara for the heads up and the reminder that all the Colorado River Basin states have a stake in solving supply problems in the basin. As Wayne Aspinall famously said, “In the west, when you touch water, you touch everything.”

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.

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