Clark County has sent to Congress a bill draft proposing that more than 50,000 acres of federal public land in the Las Vegas Valley be opened for private development, but dangling like a vestigial tail at the end of the 21-page proposal is an end-run around the courts and the law that could allow the currently stalled rural water grab by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) to take place. 

In 2017 a federal judge ruled that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) could grant the water agency right-of-way for a 300-mile network of pipelines to take groundwater beneath White Pine, Lincoln and Nye counties, but first it had to come up with plans to mitigate the potential loss of wildlife habitat due to a draw down of the water table, as is required by the CleanWater Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

That task may be impossible, because federal studies show the interconnected aquifers are already at equilibrium — water that is already being drawn from the aquifers is being replaced gallon for gallon annually with no leeway for additional withdrawal. The water agency proposes to withdraw 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year.

The lands bill Clark County sent to Congress calls for the Interior Department to give the water authority rights-of-way for an electric power line that “shall be subject only to the terms, conditions and stipulations identified in the existing rights-of-way, and shall not be subject to further administrative or judicial review. The right-of-way shall be granted in perpetuity and shall not require the payment of rental fees.”

A right-of-way for a power line could easily accommodate pipelines, too.

The Great Basin Water Network (GBWN) — a coalition of conservationists, rural officials, tribes and agricultural interests which was one of the parties that successfully sued to block the water grab — is crying foul over the decision to try to skirt the law and the federal judge’s ruling with legislation. 

“What that decision tells us is that SNWA and federal land managers cannot figure out how to mitigate a project that would –– when fully built –– destroy 305 springs, 112 miles of streams, 8,000 acres of wetlands, and 191,000 acres of shrubland habitat on public lands, according to the BLM,” GBWN and others write in a letter to Nevada’s congressional delegation. “In the path of this destruction is Nevada’s first national park, Great Basin, which hosts the state’s only glacier, supports magnificent stands of ancient bristlecone pines, and dazzles visitors with a majestic network of limestone caves.”

In a press release announcing its opposition to the bill draft, Kyle Roerink, GBWN’s executive director, stated, “SNWA is trying to re-write the laws to allow their destructive pipeline and remove barriers that were enacted to protect Nevadans and their public resources. Members of the delegation should not do SNWA’s dirty work by gutting bedrock environmental protections to pave the way for a project that will kill endangered species, mine groundwater, and siphon away Eastern Nevada’s future in return for sprawl.” 

Roerink also noted the opponents have been fighting the water grab for 30 years. 

If it goes forward, it is estimated the groundwater project will take 40 years to complete at a cost of $15 billion — a cost that would require the tripling of water rates in Clark County. According to an SNWA resource plan the water is not needed until 2035. 

“Its gargantuan $15 billion price tag (in 2011 dollars) highlights SNWA’s blatant disregard for its own ratepayers –– many of whom live on low or fixed incomes,” Roerink argues. “Those costs could mean water bills skyrocketing in Las Vegas while wildlife, landscapes, businesses, local governments and tribes suffer in Eastern Nevada.”

In his 2017 ruling federal Judge Andrew Gordon noted the importance of the controversy to both sides of the issue, writing, “I am sensitive to the strong feelings and weighty interests at stake in this contest over Nevada’s water — after all, in the West, ‘whisky’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’ over.’ There can be no question that drawing this much water from these desert aquifers will harm the ecosystem and impact cultural sites that are important to our citizens. On the other hand, southern Nevada faces an intractable water shortage.”

Our congressional delegation should allow Clark County to develop land within its boundaries, but should not grant this proposed end-run around the courts and the law to slake its thirst.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at thomasmnv@yahoo.com. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/