By Thomas Mitchell

Rural Nevada counties should be careful with whom they form alliances.
This past week two federal lawsuits were filed with the same intended purpose and with many of the same arguments proffered — trying to reverse the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to grant right of way for 300 miles of pipeline to allow Las Vegas to tap groundwater from eastern Nevada valleys. The two suits are expected to be combined at some point.

In a parallel case, a state judge’s decision blocking the project is on appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court.

One 32-page federal suit was filed by the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity and the other 75-pager by a coalition of local governments, private organizations and Indian tribes. Among the plaintiffs in the latter case are White Pine County, the Great Basin Water Network, the Sierra Club and the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority, which addresses water resource issues for Churchill, Elko, Esmeralda, Eureka, Lander, Nye, Pershing and White Pine counties or about 65 percent of the land in Nevada.

While the counties expressly want to preserve the groundwater for their own future economic growth, including for mining, ranching, farming and recreational use, some of the plaintiff groups likely would oppose just about any use of any water anywhere that might in anyway harm any animal, bird, snail, snake or minnow that might walk, crawl, fly, slither or swim across the Great Basin.

The suit backed by the counties points out that the bid by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) to tap 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year could have far-reaching impact.

According to state engineer records the groundwater in Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys are linked to the White River Flow System and drawing down the water table in those valleys could affect water resources as far away as Pahranagat Valley, Lake Valley, Muddy River Springs Valley, Lower Moapa Valley, and Coyote Spring Valley.

“The proposed pumping would amount to a devastating groundwater mining project, under which the groundwater system would not even begin to approach equilibrium for thousands of years, with the potential of never reaching equilibrium,” the suit by the counties contends. “As the two Nevada State Court rulings … concluded, it is irrational, arbitrary, and capricious to restrict the consideration of impacts to as short a time period as 200 years when the uniform evidence confirms that the groundwater systems involved will be disturbed and subject to ever worsening drawdown for millennia.”

Both lawsuits claim Interior and the BLM violated various laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, in approving the groundwater project.

In a press release accompanying the filing of the lawsuits, one of the plaintiffs revealed his group’s aims. Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “Congress passed these laws to make sure our public lands are managed on the basis of multiple use, to protect irreplaceable cultural and natural resources for current and future generations. They exist so that the needs of future generations of Americans can be taken into account — not just short-term economic growth and greed.” (Emphasis added.)

One of the more interesting arguments in opposition to the water grab involves an area the Goshute Tribe considers sacred, thus raising both religious and tribal treaty implications.
Goshute tribal elders maintain that at the Swamp Cedars Massacre Site — where in 1863 more than 300 Indian men, women, and children were killed by the U.S. Calvary — a swamp cedar tree grew where each one of the Indians fell, and the tribe fears a water table decline would harm the trees. The Goshutes say that when this information was presented at a hearing an SNWA attorney compared tribal religious beliefs to a child’s belief in the “boogey man.”

Additionally, the Treaty of Peace and Friendship entered into by the federal government and the Goshutes and Shoshones in 1863 predates any federal environmental protection statutes.
“The future of rural communities and wildlife in the massive target zone is at stake,” said Susan Lynn of the Great Basin Water Network. “The $15 billion project will be exceptionally risky and costly for both rural residents and Las Vegas ratepayers.”

The counties’ attorneys need to make sure their fellow plaintiffs from the environmental organizations don’t win a decision that locks the counties out of tapping the groundwater for local miners, ranchers, farmers and residents.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at Read additional musings on his blog at