(Ann Knowles/Nevada News Bureau) – A series of public meetings on the plan to transport water from rural Nevada to Las Vegas is expected to draw a diverse group of allies trying to stop the controversial project.
Dozens of ranchers, farmers, hunters, tribal representatives, business owners and conservationists are expected to voice their opposition to the plan at the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) first gathering tonight at Pioche Elementary School, 180 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The federal agency is hosting the meetings to answer questions and take public comment on its draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on the groundwater importation scheme.
“My guess is we’ll have between 30 and 250 people at each meeting,” said Susan Lynn, executive director of Public Resource Associates in Reno and a member of the board of directors at Great Basin Water Network, a coalition of about 40 groups working together to halt what it calls a “water grab.”
“We’ve strongly urged them to turn out if they want to be heard and if they want to register their concerns,” said Lynn. “And if they want more information because, frankly, a lot of information is missing from the draft environmental impact statement. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has not done anything to include costs, it has not really provided a valid argument for why this specific project is needed, and other alternatives for water sources have not been included. We feel there are some gaping holes that need to be addressed.”
Published in June, the EIS covers the first phase of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s (SNWA) proposal to build a 300-mile pipeline to transport as much as 176,655 acre-feet of water annually to Las Vegas, from as far away as southeastern White Pine County.
The EIS looks only at the main pipeline, power line and primary lateral facilities, but the master project also calls for pumping stations, a water treatment facility, an underground water reservoir and other infrastructure needed to convey the water through White Pine, Lincoln and Clark counties.
The SNWA is applying to the BLM for the rights-of-ways (ROW) on federal lands needed to build the pipeline, and the BLM is required by law to produce a study or an EIS on major projects under the so-called NEPA process (National Environmental Policy Act).
If all the ROWs are approved and the Nevada state engineer grants all necessary water rights, the pipeline could begin conveying water to Las Vegas from Delamar Valley in Lincoln County by 2020, according to the EIS.
Understanding the environmental impact statement
The EIS itself is a massive document; the executive summary alone is 90 pages. In it, the BLM looks at the project’s impact on wildlife, both on land and in water; rangeland and grazing; public safety and health; recreation, such as hunting; air quality; and soil and minerals, as well as the effect on local economies and culture, including Native American traditional values.
The EIS outlines the SNWA proposal, then six alternatives — five labeled A through E and a sixth called a No Action alternative – and their corresponding environmental impact assessments. The BLM does not specify what it calls a “preferred” alternative, but concludes that alternative A may be considered a “reasonable scenario” for the project.
The BLM is hosting nine meetings, starting with tonight’s gathering in Lincoln County’s Pioche and concluding on Aug. 18 with a meeting at the Sparks High School in northern Nevada.
In between, meetings will be held in Baker, Ely, Elko, Las Vegas and Alamo, Nevada, and in Delta and Salt Lake City, Utah, where the hydrographic basins from which SNWA plans to pump are located. The BLM is also taking public comment via email and fax, or the public can send in comments to the agency’s Reno office. The deadline to submit comments, originally Sept. 9, has been extended to Oct. 11.
The meetings will start with an hour-long open house at which the public can ask questions of scientists involved in preparing the EIS as well as submit comments to a court reporter.
Representatives from SNWA will also be on hand to answer questions, but will have minimal involvement in what is a BLM-led meeting, said Bronson Mack, a spokesperson for the Las Vegas-based water authority.
Then, in an unusual but not unprecedented procedure, there will be a formal, two-hour hearing during which people can testify before a BLM hearing officer.
“We formulated this to meet the needs of the public,” said Penny Woods, project manager in the BLM’s Nevada Groundwater Projects office in Reno. “The public really wanted a hearing-style meeting.”
Woods said she expects public comment to exceed what the BLM collected during the project’s so-called scoping phase, in 2005-2006, after the SNWA applied for the ROWs in 2004, when the agency received about 7,000 comments.
Once the comments on the draft EIS come in, Wood said they would be analyzed by project scientists, who will write replies, and be included in the final EIS.
Will the comments make a difference?
“I think the BLM will listen to the comments,” said Doug Busselman, executive vice president of the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation, a Sparks-based advocacy group for the state’s farmers and ranchers. “But having been involved in the NEPA process before, I always equate it to the phantom double play in baseball: you don’t have to touch second base, you just have to get close enough to look like you did. Everything I’ve seen in the past — and I don’t see it any differently in this particular case — there are pre-determined outcomes and the NEPA process becomes more of a justification to say, we considered what we needed to consider and we’re going to do what we’re going to do.”
Still, Busselman is strongly encouraging his members to attend the BLM meetings as well as the upcoming state engineer hearings.
“I think the water engineer’s decision is going to be driven by whatever science and evidence is presented in the water hearings themselves and whether the models that have been developed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority stand the test of being challenged or whether the folks that are opposed to it are able to present information that would substantiate their claims,” said Busselman.
“I think the strongest argument is the whole sustainability issue,” he said. “At some point in time, when the water runs out, they’ve spent a lot of money to create an infrastructure that may not have any water left in it to move water down. It really comes down to a sustainability issue not only for the impacted lands but also for those receiving water on the other end.”
The project does face another hurdle when the state engineer decides whether to grant SNWA the needed water rights for as much as 80,000 acre-feet of water in Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys.
The engineer had previously allocated those rights to SNWA, but that was overturned when the Nevada Supreme Court ruled last year on a suit brought by the Great Basin Water Network. The high court said the state engineer had not taken action on SNWA’s water rights application in 1989 within a year, as required by law, forcing SNWA to reapply.
Those new hearings, open to the public, are being held at the Nevada State Legislature in Carson City starting Sept. 26 and continuing through until Nov. 18. A day for public comment is scheduled for Oct. 7, four days before the BLM comment period closes.
Possible problem from outside Nevada
But the project’s biggest stumbling block may be Utah, according to Pat Mulroy, general manager of SNWA, who appeared on Nevada NewsMakers today.
“There is still tremendous push back out of Utah. We had a negotiated agreement that has yet to be finalized on the Utah side,” said Mulroy. “It sitting in Utah and there seems to be no willingness on the Utah side.”
Mulroy said the issue may have to be resolved either by Congress or taking it to the U.S. Supreme Court to gain what she said was an equitable apportionment of Snake Valley, which straddles the two states.
Great Basin Water Network is confident the project can be curtailed if not stalled, one way or another.
“I really do strongly feel there is a chance that this will be reduced in size or not happen at all because I think there are so many other alternatives, at lower cost,” said Lynn. “I hope that rational minds will prevail on the costs and impacts.”