Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pipelines & Pipe Dreams

Last night, we encountered a fascinating surprise. It's another twist in the rather twisted plot of Southern Nevada Water Authority's (SNWA) proposed pipeline to pump water from Snake Valley (and Western Utah) to Clark County. SNWA "Water Czar" Pat Mulroy has claimed Southern Nevada needs to prepare for a future without much Colorado River water, but the coalition of rural farmers and urban environmentalists fighting "The Water Grab" have pointed to water conservation programs (including many that SNWA itself once championed!) as less disruptive and less expensive alternatives to the proposed pipeline.

Over the years, SNWA has been able to line up needed state and federal approval to build the Snake Valley Pipeline. But yesterday, a critical element of that equation was taken away. Nevada State Engineer Jason King approved the Snake Valley Pipeline in 2011, but a district court invalidated a key part of that approval yesterday.

[...] Senior District Judge Robert Estes said this "is likely the largest interbasin transfer of water in U.S. history" and that parts of King's decision were "arbitrary and capricious" and ordered him to re-evaluate the amount of water available in the four basins and take another look at the potential environmental damage.

Estes said King approved an excess of 9,780 acre feet of water being drawn from Spring Valley, and the judge ordered King to recalculate the amount of available water to assure there is "an equal amount of discharge and recharge in a reasonable time." King must also reconsider how piping water from Spring Valley will impact the groundwater resources in Millard and Juab counties in Utah. [...]

Rob Mrowka, senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity called the decision a "huge blow to the water authority's plan to suck massive amounts of water out of the Nevada-Utah desert to feed urban sprawl in and around Las Vegas." He continued, calling this a "historic ruling and a great victory for wildlife in Nevada and Utah, rural communities and families, and for the citizens of Las Vegas." He said the water authority now has the opportunity to explore other alternatives to serve the growing needs of Southern Nevada.

While Mr. Mrowka is correct that SNWA now has the opportunity to explore alternatives, it remains to be seen how much more time and money SNWA will spend before considering those alternatives. For several years, Pat Mulroy has made the Snake Valley Pipeline her greatest cause. It was once meant to give life to Harvey Whittemore's latest and greatest exurban masterpiece, Coyote Springs. But now that Harvey Whittemore is claiming residence in a federal prison cell and Coyote Springs has become an electrified ghost town (with a lovely golf course), Mulroy no longer has a shiny new real estate boondoggle development to direct Snake Valley water to. Yet despite the legal and financial collapse of Whittemore's juiced up empire, Mulroy refuses to give up on the pipeline that was meant to fuel his last great pipe dream.

And the drama doesn't end there. Once upon a time, Pat Mulroy was considered Nevada's most powerful unelected leader. But in a shocking reversal of fortune, the Nevada Legislature considered a bill early this year to require more oversight of SNWA on the heels of public backlash over recent water rate increases and accusations of workers' rights abuses. While the bill itself was later shelved, SNWA is no longer perceived to be a political "sacred cow" that's never to be challenged.

What was once meant to be the final regal feather in the cap of Pat Mulroy's illustrious reign as Southern Nevada's Water Czar is instead beginning to resemble a rope (tied to an anvil) that's been leading Mulroy's SNWA into an embarrassing string of scandals and setbacks. Even if SNWA can score a victory in the Nevada Supreme Court (and that's far from certain, considering that court ruled against SNWA in 2010), it likely won't be the end of the legal battles over the Snake Valley Pipeline. And with continuing anger in the Las Vegas Valley over recent water rate hikes (meant to fund construction of the pipeline), SNWA no longer has a strong base of support at home for the pipeline.

We can only wonder when the halls of power atop SNWA headquarters will hear this question being asked aloud: Is it worth it? Is the Snake Valley Pipeline truly worth all this time and money? And is it worth all the political capital SNWA has lost in recent years? Oh, and is it worth the risk it presents to a wide swath of Rural Nevada that depends on Snake Valley water? And is it worth the risk of allowing for exurban sprawl that could later cause logistical woes for Clark County?

Here's another question for all of us to consider: Is it finally time for us to drop the crack pipe that's given us pipe dreams of a pipeline that can magically make the horrors of drought and climate change go away? As of now, this pipe dream is looking like a massive nightmare.

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