Posted on | November 17, 2009 | 2 Comments
Updated 11/19/2009 9.21am PST
ITEM 5 on the agenda for this Thursday’s board meeting of the Southern Nevada Water Authority calls for the directors to take an October 15, 2009 decision by a Nevada district judge Norman C. Robison to the state Supreme Court.
The Robison decision deemed a 2008 award of water to Las Vegas and the SNWA by the State Engineer of Nevada from three Lincoln County valleys “arbitrary, oppressive and a manifest abuse of discretion.” It then vacated the award for water in the three valleys that are the key first staging grounds of a nearly 300-mile-long pipeline that Las Vegas plans to run into the heart of the state to pump rural groundwater.
Why did the judge rule the way he did? According to Robison, the water — 18,755 acre feet of it a year (or enough for 37,000 homes) — isn’t there. “The state engineer acknowledged within his ruling that all water rights previously available in the three basins at issue had already been fully distributed. The State Engineer then declared that the perennial yields within the three basins had increased, thereby creating additional acre feet annually available for distribution.”
The same day that the ruling was issued, unaware of its loss, the SNWA board voted to pay one of the parties to the suit before Judge Robison $4m to drop its suit.
To see how (and if) the SNWA staff will justify to its board having paid $4m for nothing and to hear the grounds for appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court, watch the board meeting, which will be broadcast live Thursday November 19th from 9am. Click here for links.
Also hanging in the balance are another 36,000 acre feet of water a year, or enough for 72,000 homes, from Snake Valley, which straddles the Nevada-Utah border and is the final stop of the proposed Las Vegas pipeline.
Locking down this water by Las Vegas has been held up because of an inconvenient act of the US Congress, more precisely, a clause inserted by a Utah senator in the Lincoln County Conservation, Recreation and Development Act of 2004. This stipulated that Utah would have to sign off on the amount of water exported before so much as a drop could be pumped by Las Vegas from Snake Valley.
Back in Washington DC, the last minute insertion of the clause in the 2004 bill surprised the Nevadan delegation, unpleasantly. As a result, for the last five years, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) has put the screws to the Utah delegation, his implicit threat being that if Utah wants to benefit from any federal legislation, it has an itching Nevadan back in the form of Sen Reid’s power base in Las Vegas to scratch first.
Not a day passes in the office of the Governor of Utah that Reid’s threat doesn’t reverberate. Last night, the Deseret News reported on a meeting between Utah Governor Gary Herbert and opponents of a water deal with Nevada. According to the report, “Herbert warned that his visit to Washington, D.C., last week gave him the ‘distinct impression’ from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that Nevada officials are banking on the decision being overturned.”
Translation: Hey, Utah, don’t think because we have an uppity judge to quash our side of the border that you can perpetuate this fight and win.
But why after a five-year stand-off would Reid’s threats suddenly prevail?
Because freshly armed with a majority, all Reid needs to do to bring Utah to heel is to add a clause to an omnibus bill overturning the troublesome 2004 clause. Tit for tat. Clause for clause.
The choice before Utah now boils down to this: Does it want to hurt, or hurt worse? If it keeps fighting, the 36,000 acre feet tentatively agreed for Las Vegas by Utah in a draft water sharing agreement published in August could easily turn into 50,000 acre feet. Las Vegas holds claims to the higher number and has hydrologists willing to claim that it is the actual sustainable yield.
It merits noting that these are the same experts behind the now discredited Lincoln County awards.
Utah’s Governor Herbert has held off from giving Las Vegas the lower 36,000 acre feet under formidable pressure from leading medics, whose fear is that after Las Vegas pumps dry up Snake Valley the resulting dust storms will destroy the air quality of Salt Lake City, which sits precariously downwind. The asthma threat for Salt Lake City residents is all too real, but the new political reality is that Utah has no power to stand its ground.
Rather, the new front line of the battle between Las Vegas and the rest of the Great Basin, both rural Nevadans and Utahans, boils down to Item 5. Watch Thursday to see how the Southern Nevada Water Authority responds to a Nevadan district judge who had the temerity to point out that in seeking rural groundwater, Las Vegas gamed the science and that the State Engineer knowingly colluded with it by awarding imaginary reserves.
More as it happens.
Update 11/19/2009, 9.21am PST: The SNWA general manager, deputy general manager and counsel, the team behind the overturned Lincoln County claims, swiftly secured approval from their board to challenge Judge Norman C. Robison’s decision vacating the awards, saying, “We believe the judge ignored the evidence and improperly substituted his opinion.”
During public comment, which the board invited after it voted, objection to the move came from Launce Rake, spokesman for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “I would like you to know that I and tens of thousands of others object to the continued pursuit of the water grab… we’d like to add that the judge made a decision based on the science and we think that it will be upheld.” Regarding a further point in the deputy general manager’s presentation on water supplies that the SNWA had “easily” met its conservation goals, Rake added that if it is so easy, Las Vegas should be asked to do more. “If it’s not a challenge, then we are making a mistake,” he said.