Judge decrees awards of rural water for Las Vegas “arbitrary and capricious”

Posted on | December 11, 2013 | No Comments

Natural spring in Spring Valley, Nevada

Spring Valley wetlands near the Great Basin National Park targeted by a Las Vegas pipeline. Photo: Emily Green

UPDATED 12/12: A Nevadan district judge has invalidated the largest groundwater awards in the Silver State’s history. In a decision published Tuesday, Senior District Judge Robert Estes found assurances from Nevada State Engineer Jason King that the engineer’s office could monitor impact of Las Vegas pumps proposed for rural valleys covering more than 20,000 square miles and drafting more than 27 billion gallons a year “arbitrary and capricious.”

The decision is the third in a series of stinging rulings from Nevada courts reversing allocations made since 2007 by the State Engineer to Las Vegas water prospectors. In 2009 and 2010 Nevada’s district and supreme courts demanded that the State Engineer revisit groundwater awards to Las Vegas’s Southern Nevada Water Authority from Dry Lake, Delamar, Cave and Spring valleys because of unsound groundwater science and due process violations.

In a baldly insolent rebuke to the courts, in 2011 the State Engineer increased his office’s previous rounds of water awards for the 200-mile long pipeline proposed by Las Vegas. Protestors including environmentalists, three rural counties in Nevada and Utah, tribes including the Goshute and Shoshone, and the Church of Latter Day Saints again sought remedy from a judge. Among the arguments that they then made in Nevada district court was that the State Engineer was unable to carry out promised monitoring of environmental damage.

Finding for the protestors yesterday, Judge Estes wrote, “There are 172,605 acres in Spring Valley alone. Without a plan to monitor that large of an area, a statement that the Engineer will monitor the area is … arbitrary and capricious. Impliedly, the Engineer has ceded the monitoring responsibilities to [the Southern Nevada Water Authority.]”

Patricia Mulroy, whose quarter century career as Las Vegas’s water manager has been marked by her bid for rural water, announced earlier this year that she will be retiring in 2014. Channel 8 reports she will step down in February. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, the organization that she built expressly on the promise of groundwater imported from Spring, Dry Lake, Cave and Delamar valleys, issued this comment to Channel 8: “SNWA is pleased that the court did not disturb the bulk of the State Engineer’s findings, including the determination that the applied for water is needed by the people of Southern Nevada who rely almost exclusively on the drought-stricken Colorado River for their water supply.  Furthermore, the court also affirmed that the quantity of water determined by the State Engineer is available for appropriation in Spring Valley.  The court has asked the State Engineer to gather additional data before rights are granted and water is developed, and SNWA is confident that this can be done. SNWA will complete an evaluation of its legal positions regarding the order in the coming weeks.”

 To read the Estes decision, click here. For the response of the Great Basin Water Network, which brought the suit against the State Engineer, click here; for a report of the Estes decision in the Las Vegas Review-Journal here; for a history of the Las Vegas pipeline project in the Las Vegas Sun here; for past court decisions here and here; for the State Engineer’s 2011 decision here

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