The screw turns

Posted on | February 24, 2010 | 1 Comment

Updated 10.16am 3/1/2010. The Las Vegas Review-Journal  reports that the Nevada Legislature will send the proposed water bill to committee before disbanding its special session today. Governor Jim Gibbons may recall legislature for a vote on it once the bill is out of committee.

NEVADA Governor Jim Gibbons all but gave back what late last month the state supreme court took away when today he released formal instruction to the state legislature to revise a law “concerning the time in which the State Engineer must act upon a water rights application so that [it] applies retroactively to all applications filed with the State Engineer between July 1, 1947 and July 1, 2003 and so that provisions … apply retroactively to pending applications and applications/permits under appeal involving certain transfers of groundwater.”

The upshot? Fasten your seatbelt for some time travel. Those who protested the nearly 300-mile-long pipeline planned by Las Vegas to draw rural groundwater for the city in 1989, and who under state law at the time should have been guaranteed a hearing in 1991, but didn’t get it until 2007, and who in early 2010 successfully convinced the Supreme Court of Nevada that they had been screwed have been screwed again.

Not only has the governor instructed legislature to consider an item that will, in effect, retroactively strip protestors of their rights and (re-) secure water for Las Vegas, he also sought wording for the screw job from the very department that conducts water hearings.

Is it legal? Time will tell. Is it fair? Undoubtedly not. What is it?

“It’s Nevada, Inc,” said Launce Rake, former environment reporter for the Las Vegas Sun, now on staff with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Provided that the legislature does Las Vegas’ and the governor’s bidding, this bit of legislative time travel solves only one problem besetting the Las Vegas pipeline. Last October, a Nevadan district judge struck down awards in three key pipeline basins, ruling that Nevada’s State Engineer “acted arbitrarily, capriciously and oppressively” when he cleared the Southern Nevada Water Authority to pump more than 6 billion gallons of groundwater a year from Cave, Delamar and Dry Lake valleys.

It is beyond the governor’s and legislature’s gift to reinstate those awards, which Las Vegas must appeal to the very same state supreme court that in January ruled in favor of the protestors over the due process question.

Confused? Don’t be. It’s not law. It’s water law. In Nevada.

For background on 2010’s Chinatown, click here.

UPDATE 2/25/2010: The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports today that if the legislature acts on the governor’s proposed amendment, it will not leave the contested Las Vegas awards standing, but lead to a new hearing for the water-rich Spring Valley, the only basin left unaffected by the October ruling striking down Las Vegas’s pipeline water awards in Dry Lake, Delamar and Cave valleys.

How this would happen is unclear because there are no provisions for it in the governor’s request.

However, quoting Allen Biaggi, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the man who drafted the request for the governor, the RJ reports, “the state would reopen a protest period that closed more than 20 years ago, back when Las Vegas officials first applied for the water. State regulators would then hold a new hearing on the authority’s plans to pump billions of gallons of groundwater a year from the vast watershed in White Pine County, 250 miles north of Las Vegas. Biaggi said he consulted with water authority officials while crafting the proposed language, but he insists it was not written for the authority’s benefit. ‘This cuts no slack to them,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if they were particularly thrilled or happy about it.'”

A new hearing for Spring Valley would amount to a costly but achievable outcome for the authority, while legally registered protestors that once numbered in the thousands, and who two decades later are now now down to the dozens, would have to find tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for lawyers and expert witnesses needed to re-mount their case. It might, however, open the door to groundwater models suppressed by the water authority and later revealed by a whistleblower that showed the extent of damage that could be expected as a result of Las Vegas pumping.

In the unlikely event that the Legislative Counsel Bureau, which would need to draft the revised law to go before legislature, cannot thread the needle for the governor and Las Vegas, and the legislature declines to pass the amendment, then the Supreme Court decision affecting Spring Valley will be referred to the same district court judge who in October voided awards for three other basins. However this judge may have little option but to direct a similar remedy of re-opening the Spring Valley protest period and calling for another expensive hearing.


One Response to “The screw turns”

  1. David Zetland
    March 5th, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

    I was describing NV to a foreigner. Mafia-state is what came to mind…

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