The Southern Nevada Water Authority board voted Thursday to withdraw its remaining permits and applications associated with its proposal to pump groundwater from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas -- a project criticized by environmentalists, ranchers, tribes and rural counties.
The unanimous decision by the board, which is composed of local elected officials, marks an end to the water authority’s multi-decade effort to get approval for the controversial water project.
In April, the water authority signaled its intention to shelve the project by not appealing an unfavorable District Court ruling that denied the water authority a sizable portion of its water rights. Still, the water authority had remaining applications, entitlements and agreements that would have made it possible to develop a reconfigured project in the future.
The board’s action Thursday morning, which came at the recommendation of General Manager John Entsminger and water authority staff, took that possibility off the table.
“We should recommend to the board moving the groundwater project into indefinite deferred status when we redo our resource plan,” Entsminger told the board before its vote.
In 1989, the Las Vegas Valley Water District set off a firestorm in rural Nevada when it filed more than 100 applications to appropriate groundwater across the state. Those applications were eventually put in the name of the water authority. The plan: to build a pipeline that would pump the groundwater to the fast-growing urban reliant on a drought-stricken Colorado River.
Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones, who sits on the water authority board and made a motion to approve the recommendation, said that since the project was proposed, “it has become clear that the project does not make sense either environmentally or economically.”
Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a coalition that has opposed the project in court, at the Legislature and in the media, said the “decision is the product of immense sacrifice on behalf of rural communities, tribes, environmentalists and others – all of whom were told time and again that this day would never come.”
In recent years, the agency continued to push back its timeline for needing that water.
The Las Vegas metropolitan area sources about 90 percent of its drinking water from the Colorado River. Since the pipeline was being seriously weighted as an option, the water authority has decreased the amount of Colorado River water it uses each year, through conservation and indoor water recycling. It has also increased its water security by investing heavily in infrastructure allowing the agency to tap into water under a worst-case scenario.
This, in addition to collaboration with other Colorado River users, allowed agency staff to recommend putting the project in “indefinite deferred status,” Entsminger said.
According to the agenda item, the authority continues looking for ways to bolster its water supply portfolio. But to do so, it’s suggesting that it’s looking to other Colorado River users.
“In addition to pressing forward with the conservation programs discussed above, the authority remains actively engaged in discussions with [Colorado River] basin state colleagues to add long term water resources to its portfolio,” Entsminger wrote in the agenda item. “Such resources may include, without limitation, desalination and wastewater recycling where appropriate, and will likely require that additional flexibilities be added to the Law of the River.”
The Law of the River refers to the set of compacts, congressional acts, guidelines, litigation and rules that govern who the Colorado River operates. Those rules could go through a new update in the coming years as states in the watershed re-consider guidelines for operating reservoirs.
“Southern Nevada’s progressive water resource management strategies and comprehensive conservation programs provide more cost-effective options to enhance our long-term water resource portfolio,” Entsminger said in a statement released after the meeting.
Pat Mulroy, who led the water district and later the water authority from 1989 to 2014, said that the completion of infrastructure at Lake Mead offered Southern Nevada more security for its Colorado River supply. She said she trusted the board's judgement that it could remove the project from its resource plan.
"The bottom line is this was all about securing our water supply for Southern Nevada," she said. "Period. If that could be done another way I'm all for it."
The board’s action directs water authority staff to withdraw pending groundwater applications related to the project. In addition to the water rights litigated in the District Court decision, the water authority had pending applications before the state’s top water regulator, in other basins. Those include Snake Valley, an aquifer shared with Utah, Railroad Valley and Indian Springs.
It also committed the water authority to reconveying a litigated right-of-way to the Bureau of Land Management. The actions also allow staff to withdraw from agreements with federal agencies regarding the project and write-off about $330 million accrued for the project.
Once the water authority withdraws its applications for water rights with state regulators, other individuals or entities could file applications to appropriate the water. That could be a mixed blessing for opponents of the project. Although it would allow local residents to appropriate water that had been tied up for years, it could enable others to propose large-scale projects.
In addition, the water authority will continue to own ranches associated with the project.
“This is truly historic,” Patrick Donnelly, Nevada director for the Center for Biological Diversity, an opponent of the project, said in a statement. “People who love rural Nevada and its precious wildlife can breathe a sigh of relief now that this destructive pipeline plan is dead.”