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Election 2018 | Environment

Southerner Sisolak comes out against Vegas plan to import rural water

A bucket protesting the Southern Nevada Water Authority's proposed pipeline project outside of Baker, Nevada. (Courtesy of the Great Basin Water Network)

Gubernatorial contender Steve Sisolak has come out against a plan pushed for decades by Southern Nevada interests to pump water from the rural counties to accommodate Las Vegas needs. Sisolak, a Democrat, took the position while answering water policy questions that The Nevada Independent posed to both candidates for governor.

The campaign for Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt, who currently serves as the state’s attorney general, did not reply to the questions about water. The Nevada Independent sent numerous emails to a spokesman and two top campaign operatives in the last two weeks.

Since 1989, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) has sought permits to construct a 250-mile pipeline project to pull water out of Eastern Nevada aquifers and ship it to Las Vegas. Fears of the “water grab” have pitted rural northern counties against powerful Clark County in the South, where 90 percent of the water comes from the Colorado River, which is impounded 35 miles outside of Las Vegas at Lake Mead, a reservoir sapped by drought and overuse.

The water authority, which sells Colorado River water throughout the Las Vegas Valley, had argued that the pipeline, although divisive, is a necessary backstop to ensure that the state’s urban hub and an economic engine can thrive even as the river’s flow decreases. Mired in legal challenges, the pipeline will not be built this decade. But the water authority, on whose board Sisolak, Chairman of the Clark County Commission, serves, plans to continue pursuing it.

But in a move that may surprise many, Sisolak is coming out unequivocally opposed to it.

“I do not support the SNWA pipeline,” he wrote in an email.

The Laxalt campaign did not respond to numerous requests for his position on this issue and a number of other water issues affecting the state, from domestic wells to excess water rights and the way warming temperatures are changing hydrology, a concern for most water managers.

The next governor will likely face important personnel and administrative decisions in how water law is executed in Nevada. Many decisions on the pipeline and about how water is allocated are left up to the state engineer, Nevada’s top regulator. The state engineer, Jason King, is expected to retire next year. Under Nevada statute, his position is filled by the head of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, a gubernatorial appointee.

"We encourage all Nevadans to ask candidates about their positions on the SNWA water grab, which would be destructive for rural Nevada and Las Vegas ratepayers,” said Abigail Johnson, who runs the Great Basin Water Network, a group of ranchers, environmentalists and politicians near Ely opposed to the pipeline. “Water is the most important issue for our state’s future, and candidates should have something to say about it so voters can make informed decisions.”

Sisolak’s position on the SNWA pipeline

Because of Sisolak’s position as the top elected official in Clark County, many opponents of the pipeline project had assumed that he would be in lock-step with the water authority on the issue.

In 2017, the water authority’s board, including Sisolak, voted to approve its 50-year water resource plan, which includes the pipeline.

But Sisolak has long expressed criticism of the pipeline. In a 2015 High Country News profile of Pat Mulroy, the water authority’s legendary founder who first proposed the pipeline, Sisolak said the more he learned about the project, the more concerned he became. “This isn’t a good idea,” he told the magazine. Sisolak also criticized the water authority’s bullish approach in pursuing it.

“Instead of taking a step back and saying, ‘OK: Let’s re-evaluate,’” he told High Country News, “it was like, ‘No: We’re just going to put our foot on the pedal harder to make this happen.’"

Even earlier, in 2010, Sisolak questioned it, asking the Las Vegas Sun: “What’s the point of doing these multibillion-dollar projects if we find out in 30 or 40 years that we don’t need them?”

At the time, he called on the water authority to reassess how much water it needed.

In an interview Saturday, Sisolak said Las Vegas should explore desalination as a potential long-term supply. He said the proposed pipeline helped drive a wedge between the North and the South.

“Whether it was intentional or unintentional, I think what Pat [Mulroy] initiated started to drive a wedge between the North and the South ” Sisolak said. “ It’s a very sensitive topic when you are dealing with mining and ranching that have water rights. They don’t want to have these water rights detrimentally impacted by moving water to Southern Nevada. I thought it was an ill-conceived plan in the beginning and it’s an ill-conceived plan today.”

A groundwater election in Pahrump

In Nevada, the most arid state in the arid West, water has historically been and will remain one of the most significant factors facing the state as it looks to grow and diversify its economy.

And water, when it becomes political, can be a highly charged topic.

The state’s rivers — the Carson River, the Colorado River, the Humboldt River, the Truckee River and the Walker River — serve farmers, ranchers and towns throughout the state. But many Nevadans across the Great Basin use wells to extract water from aquifers underground.

Many of these groundwater users face a looming crisis.

In order to use water in Nevada, you need a water right from the state. In dozens of basins, the state has allocated more rights to use water than can be pumped out of the aquifer sustainably. In many cases, water rights were allocated when federal land policies, such as the Desert Land Act, encouraged Western settlement and before policymakers had an accurate accounting of the region’s hydrology. The result: If everyone used their water rights, wells could go dry. Streams could disappear. And it would become less likely that water would be available for the future.

During the ongoing drought, the state engineer, Nevada’s top water regulator, has tried to tackle the thorny issue through rulemaking and collaborative planning. Despite these efforts, the issue continues to spawn litigation across the state — in Pahrump, near Eureka and outside of Las Vegas.

Laxalt’s campaign did not respond to a question about how he would fix over-appropriation.

Sisolak, in a statement, said that he would be open to legislation to address over-appropriation.

“When we over-appropriate the groundwater that’s available, it’s difficult to make sure that we have the ongoing supply we need,” he said in an emailed statement. “We need to get a better handle on this and bring it in line. We need to ensure that we are appropriating groundwater in a smart, comprehensive way and I am willing to consider legislation that supports that goal.”

Frequently left out of the statewide conversation, water often seeps into local races.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Nye County. In December, the state engineer placed regulations on the construction of new domestic wells that tap into Pahrump’s over-appropriated aquifer, a move that sparked fear, misinformation and a lawsuit. The regulatory ruling — and water — became a key issue during a highly-charged legislative primary race in which brothel owner Dennis Hof defeated Assemblyman James Oscarson. Opponents of the ruling have set their sights on Laxalt, who as attorney general, was required to defend the state engineer.

Laxalt’s campaign did not respond to requests for comments. However, a spokesperson for the attorney general told The Nevada Independent in March that the position he was taking in his legal brief for the state did not necessarily reflect his personal opinion on the contentious water issue.

“The office of the Nevada Attorney General is statutorily required to represent the state engineer and defend the policy decision in Order 1293. While litigation is pending, the attorney general cannot comment on the litigation or share his personal views about that policy decision,” Monica Moazez, the spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, said in a statement.

Laxalt against federal involvement

As attorney general, Laxalt has weighed in on several issues involving the federal government’s role in allocating Nevada’s water. In 2015, Laxalt joined a multi-state lawsuit challenging an Obama-era environmental regulation known as the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule.

The WOTUS rule, approved in the final years of the Obama administration, expanded the Clean Water Rule, which regulates pollutants, so that it applied to smaller seasonal streams and wetlands. The Obama decision was strongly opposed by farmers and ranchers with small waterways and ditches.

“This is the latest power grab by this presidential administration to expand federal oversight into areas that are better managed by state and local governments,” Laxalt said in a press release at the time that the WOTUS rule came out. “This expansive new rule is particularly problematic for states like Nevada, whose specific needs cannot be understood by federal agencies such as the [Environmental Protection Agency], with its one-size-fits-all approach to regulation.”

Gov. Brian Sandoval supported Laxalt’s pushback on the Obama administration’s clean water rule. Since the lawsuit started, the Trump administration has started a rulemaking process to repeal and revise WOTUS. When asked about WOTUS and the state's lawsuit, Sisolak did not take a definitive position.

“The Obama-era rule has been suspended until 2020 so we will have to see what comes of that,” Sisolak said in an emailed statement. “That being said, we need to protect the limited resources we have — especially our water — and allow Nevadans in agriculture, or any local industries, have their voices heard on these matters.”

Laxalt’s suit on the WOTUS rule is not the only time he has used the attorney general’s office to challenge the federal government’s authority on a water issue. In August last year, Laxalt led a group of 10 states in briefing a Supreme Court case about whether Native American tribes and the federal government possessed a right to groundwater and could potentially claim new rights.

The case began in California when a Palm Springs-based tribe sued two water agencies to assert a right to groundwater, in addition to surface water. In 2017, the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of the tribe. The water agencies appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.

In an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, Laxalt said the case could have implications for how the state manages its water, aggravating over-appropriation issues. The state is charged with appropriating its groundwater, but the 9th Circuit ruling would give more power to the federal government, Laxalt argued.

The brief said the “longstanding and settled appropriation regime will be disrupted by new, unaccounted-for federal reserved groundwater rights claims that are suddenly asserted for the first time.”

Others argued that the tribes, who were here first and were often mistreated when water rights were originally allocated to reservations, were entitled to more water even if it further strained aquifers and harmed water users who have existing rights.

The Supreme Court did not rule on the case, leaving the 9th Circuit decision in place.

Disclosure: Steve Sisolak, Pat Mulroy and Abigail Johnson have donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.

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