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November 24, 2014

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District Court judge strikes down plan to pump water from rural counties

Updated Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013 | 5:24 p.m.

Although state Engineer Jason King is disappointed, environmental groups have hailed the court ruling that blocks plans by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to pipe an estimated 84,000 acre feet of water from rural Nevada to serve Las Vegas.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority has proposed a $6.5 billion, 10-year project to ship groundwater from Lincoln and White Pine counties to take care of a growing population in Southern Nevada. The proposal has sparked scores of protests from environmental groups, ranchers, Indian tribes and others in eastern Nevada.

King, after a hearing of more than three weeks in 2012, gave the water authority approval to annually pump 61,127 acre feet from Spring Valley, 5,235 acre feet from Cave Valley, 11,584 acre feet from Dry Lake Valley and 6,042 acre feet from Delamar Valley. An acre foot of water equals 325,851 gallons.

But today, Senior District Judge Robert Estes said this "is likely the largest interbasin transfer of water in U.S. history" and that parts of King's decision were "arbitrary and capricious" and ordered him to re-evaluate the amount of water available in the four basins and take another look at the potential environmental damage.

Estes said King approved an excess of 9,780 acre feet of water being drawn from Spring Valley, and the judge ordered King to recalculate the amount of available water to assure there is "an equal amount of discharge and recharge in a reasonable time." King must also reconsider how piping water from Spring Valley will impact the groundwater resources in Millard and Juab counties in Utah.

The judge also ordered King to recalculate the amount of water to be pumped from the other three valleys "to avoid over appropriation or conflicts with down-gradient, existing water rights."

Estes also said the plan to monitor and take any action if there is environmental damage is flawed. He wrote: "There is no objective standard to determine when mitigation efforts will be eliminated and implemented." He said King should include what steps should be taken and when to take them to avoid potential environmental damage or impacts to existing water rights.

"It's an early Christmas present," Abigail Johnson of the Great Basin Water Network said.

Johnson said she was pleased that Estes recognized that the state engineer did not set up safeguards to protect the environment and the water rights of others.

Rob Mrowka, senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity called the decision a "huge blow to the water authority's plan to suck massive amounts of water out of the Nevada-Utah desert to feed urban sprawl in and around Las Vegas." He continued, calling this a "historic ruling and a great victory for wildlife in Nevada and Utah, rural communities and families, and for the citizens of Las Vegas." He said the water authority now has the opportunity to explore other alternatives to serve the growing needs of Southern Nevada.

King said he was "obviously disappointed" with the ruling and added: "We strongly believe it is a well-reasoned decision based on substantial evidence and Nevada law."

Although Johnson said she would be surprised if the state doesn't appeal Estes' decision to the Nevada Supreme Court, King declined further comment about whether an appeal would be made.

Water authority officials said they were pleased that the decision "did not disturb the bulk of the state engineer's finding, including the determination that the applied water is needed by the people of Southern Nevada, who rely almost exclusively on the drought-stricken Colorado River for their water supply." They said they are confident King can gather additional data.

A previous state engineer's decision to allow the drawdown of the water from Lincoln County was struck down by the district court in October 2009. The Nevada Supreme Court denied an appeal of that decision and sent the case back to the state to reconsider the proposal, which King started in 2011.

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