Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2014

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Heller’s bill to the front, to keep our water flowing

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WASHINGTON - Nevada Rep. Dean Heller will make his first heavy lift on the House Resources Committee today as members consider his bill to put into law a long-fought plan to shield three Colorado River states from battles over the Endangered Species Act.

The Lower Colorado Multi-Species Conservation Program has been 10 years in the making and is seen as a way to protect fish and wildlife while also offering some certainty to Nevada, Arizona and California that the river can continue as a source of water and power for decades to come.

The 400-mile stretch of river from Lake Mead to the Mexican border is home to 26 endangered or potentially threatened species whose livelihoods are being harmed by activity on the river. The Colorado pike minnow has been essentially wiped out. The once abundant bony-tailed chub now comes mainly from fish hatcheries. The remaining razor back sucker fish are slowly dying off.

The three states have agreed to a $626 million investment in habitat improvement, costs that will be split with the federal government, in exchange for continued use of the river for the next 50 years.

Utility companies and regional lawmakers mostly embrace the plan as their best hope in establishing a truce with environmental groups. Communities such as Las Vegas, which relies on the Colorado for 90 percent of its water, can reduce the threat of litigation coming at every step.

However, environmentalists who initially supported state and federal efforts to develop the program, now say it doesn't go far enough in returning the river to its natural state.

Environmentalists say before the program is made into law, it needs greater flexibility to ensure restoration is successful before guaranteeing more water and power.

They also think the Mexican delta region should have been included , something plan supporters oppose.

Kara Gillon, a senior staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, will testify at today's hearing that Heller's bill needs to be toned down.

"From our perspective we would like to see a little more assurance it would work, and assurance that if it doesn't, something would be done to make it work," Gillon said. The group's concern is that once the program becomes law, it might be difficult to pull it back.

The plan was agreed to by the states and the federal government in 2005 and sets a goal of developing 8,000 acres of improved habitat for the endangered or threatened species along the river over the next 50 years.

Nevada's share of the costs would be $78 million, paid for by the water and power companies that use the river, including the Southern Nevada Water Authority and Nevada Power.

The environmental groups may find little traction in their opposition because the bill enjoys bipartisan support and is co-sponsored by Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz. A companion bill is to be heard by a Senate committee later this week.

George Caan, executive director of the Colorado River Commission of Nevada, said the states are trying to avoid the water wars that have played out elsewhere as water users and environmentalists battle over the resource.

Caan, who will also testify at today's hearing, said as Nevada grows it needs a steady supply of water that is not jeopardized by requirements from federal agencies to comply with the endangered species law.

"We want Congress to authorize that so we have that certainty for the next 50 years," Caan said.

"If we didn't have the certainty, every day - I don't want to be melodramatic about this - but every day we would wonder . We would not know: Are they going to cut the water supply, power supply?"

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