NEVADA GROUNDWATER CONSERVATION

THE PROBLEM

Nevada is the driest state in the nation, with average annual precipitation of just more than nine inches. Coupled with a scarcity of permanent rivers and lakes and only a meager allocation of Colorado River water, this lack of precipitation makes water the most precious and controversial resource in Nevada. And the situation will only be exacerbated by climate change, which is predicted to result in an even hotter and drier state.

But the answer is not to pump lavish amounts of the state’s precious groundwater, as the Southern Nevada Water Authority — the water agency for Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas — proposes. The agency is pushing to pump more than 80,000 acre-feet of water each year from eastern Nevada, sending it through 260 miles of pipeline to support the Las Vegas area's uncontrolled growth. The cost is currently estimated in excess of $3.5 billion.

The Water Authority claims it can permanently remove the water from eastern Nevada's desert valleys without any harm to people or to wildlife. But work by independent hydrologists and biologists shows it may not be possible to pump and export so much water without causing major environmental degradation and destroying the livelihoods of rural residents in eastern Nevada and western Utah. The area targeted for the massive pumping proposal is home to national wildlife refuges in Nevada and Utah; important state wildlife-management areas; American Indian communities; and dozens of small, rural agricultural communities that have been living in balance with the limited water supplies of the region for more than a century. Great Basin National Park is surrounded by the proposed groundwater pump-and-export project, which would bring 200 or more wells with power lines, roads and linked buried pipelines to cover the valleys on both sides of the park — some right on its border. Communities like Baker, Nevada, would have large production wells in their backyards, sending local water to a city 300 miles away.

The Center, working with partners in the Great Basin Water Network, submitted critical, scientifically based comments daylighting the extreme damage that would occur from the pumping, including drying up or significantly affecting more than 200 springs, thousands of acres of wetlands, and 33 miles of perennial streams.

The impacts of this project would be devastating to spring and aquatic species such as a number of endemic springsnails; desert fish like the Moapa dace, White River springfish, relict dace and Bonneville cutthroat trout; and riparian species such as the southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo. Upland species including pronghorn, sage grouse, bighorn sheep and rare plants would also be hurt by the lowering of the water table and effects on vegetation. The greater sage grouse, a species found to be warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act, would lose more than 130,000 acres of shrubland habitat.

 



In federal court the Center challenged the Bureau of Land Management’s “record of decision” and “final environmental impact statement” for the proposed right-of-way to construct the pipeline.  The Center’s arguments include that BLM failed to consider the environmental impacts of the unprecedented groundwater pumping along with the anticipated, severe impacts resulting from climate change in the region. The Center also challenges the agency’s failure to update its 2012 environmental analysis to consider and incorporate significant new scientific information, including new climate change science. The Center’s case, along with the related case filed by the Great Basin Water Network, tribes and other nonprofit organizations, is fully briefed before the federal district court in Las Vegas and we now await the court decision.


OUR CAMPAIGN

The Center is fighting this water grab on two fronts. On the state front, we’re combating authorization of the right to pump the groundwater, which is given by the Nevada state engineer. On the federal front, we’re opposing the authorization of a right-of-way permit for the pipeline’s construction across publicly owned land, which was granted by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 2012.

In state court the Center (through the Great Basin Water Network) won a decision in 2013 that rejected the granting of water rights to the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Spring Valley, Cave Valley, Dry Lake Valley and Delamar Valley. The state engineer’s water-rights rulings were remanded with instructions from the court to the engineer to recalculate the amount of water that is available within these basins, for additional hydrological study, and to establish standards for mitigation in the event of a conflict with existing water rights or unreasonable effects to the environment or the public interest. 

In federal court the Center challenged the Bureau of Land Management’s “record of decision” and “final environmental impact statement” for the proposed right-of-way to construct the pipeline.  The Center’s arguments include that BLM failed to consider the environmental impacts of the unprecedented groundwater pumping along with the anticipated, severe impacts resulting from climate change in the region. The Center also challenges the agency’s failure to update its 2012 environmental analysis to consider and incorporate significant new scientific information, including new climate change science. The Center’s case, along with the related case filed by the Great Basin Water Network, tribes and other nonprofit organizations, is fully briefed before the federal district court in Las Vegas and we now await the court decision.

 

 

Photo of Lake Mead National Recreation Area by mandj98/Flickr.