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Commissioner calls on water authority 'to look in a different direction' as District Court judge reaffirms decision to deny water for Las Vegas pipeline

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg

A District Court judge has once again scuttled the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plans to obtain and pump rural groundwater about 300 miles from eastern Nevada, prompting one Clark County commissioner to call on the water authority "to look in a different direction.”

Senior District Court Judge Robert Estes, presiding over the 7th Judicial District Court, ruled that the state’s water law does not support the project. The court order, filed on March 9, denied the water authority a portion of the rights for the project, which it said could result in “water mining.”

The ruling is the latest decision in ongoing litigation over the project in state and federal courts. And it comes as the water authority faces continued pressure to drop the controversial pipeline in favor of more conservation and investments to increase its supply from the Colorado River.

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones, who sits on the water authority’s board of directors, said Estes’ ruling “sends a clear message to the SNWA.” 

“From my perspective, it’s time for the SNWA to look in a different direction and consider ending the legal fight,” said Jones.

Opponents of the project have long argued a groundwater pipeline pumping water from Eastern Nevada to Las Vegas would cripple an ecosystem that supports wildlife and recreation, harm sacred tribal land and hurt ranching, especially in and around the small town of Baker, Nevada.

Facing a growing population and concerns about drought, the water authority began looking to the northern part of the state to supplement its water supply in 1989. Its proposal to pump water from rural eastern Nevada to the state’s largest city inflamed tension between the two areas. 

But in the decades since, the water authority has not needed the pipeline, pushing back the timeline for the project by cutting its Colorado River supply through conservation and recycling.  About 90 percent of the Las Vegas-area’s drinking water supply comes from the Colorado River. 

On Tuesday, Bronson Mack, a spokesperson for the water authority said “there is no scenario in our water resource plan where this project would be needed within the next 30 years.”

In the ruling, Estes defended his 2013 opinion asking the state engineer, Nevada’s top water regulator, to revisit a portion of the case using guidelines laid out by his court. In revisiting the case, the state engineer’s office denied the water authority certain rights for the project, while approving a new mitigation plan in late 2018. 

At the time of the ruling, State Engineer Jason King said that there was water available, but his decision to deny the permits was constrained by the guidelines set out in Estes’ 2013 opinion. 

The water authority board voted to appeal King’s ruling, bringing the matter back to Estes. 

In the ruling on Monday, Estes said that “this court finds that the water appropriations in Spring Valley,” where most of the groundwater pumping is expected, “threaten to prove detrimental to the public interest because the awards, at the current well configuration, result in water mining, will never reach equilibrium, and will result in depletion of the Spring Valley aquifer.”

Estes’ ruling, rather than addressing the water authority, focused on the state engineer. 

“At the outset,” Estes writes in his conclusion, “this court emphasizes that it is not bound by, nor does it agree with, the engineer’s interpretation of NRS 533.370,” which deals with water rights.

In addition to denying the water authority some of its water rights for the project, Estes’ ruling denied the water authority’s plan to mitigate the environmental impacts of pumping activities.

The water authority has not said if it is going to appeal. But it has also been looking for new sources of water. In recent months, the water authority has expressed interest in investing in a project with Southern California that would potentially free up more Colorado River water.

Although the litigation could continue, Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a coalition of groups opposed to the project, said the pipeline “is dead in the water.” 

The water network was also a litigant in the case. 

“SNWA has no right-of-way for the pipeline, and no rights to water with which to fill the pipeline," Roerink said. "This project is dead in the water. It’s time for SNWA to finally move on.”


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