Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Pipeline to Peril

Today has probably not been a good day to hang out at Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) headquarters, unless one happens to be a reporter looking for a good story. Why? Nevada's water powerhouse got hit with not one, but two federal law suits today.

First off, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a federal law suit over SNWA's proposed pipeline to divert water from Snake Valley to Clark County.

“Enough is enough,” said Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based senior scientist with the Center. “Despite hundreds of pages detailing the unthinkable harm that would be caused by this project, tens of thousands of people signing petitions against it, and setbacks in state district and supreme courts, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and BLM have closed their ears to reason, logic and plain common sense. They need to drop this disastrous water grab.”

The Groundwater Development Project would, by the authority’s own admission, dry up or “adversely affect” more than 5,500 acres of meadows, more than 200 springs, 33 miles of trout streams, and 130,600 acres of sagebrush habitat for sage grouse, mule deer, elk and pronghorn as water tables plunge by 200 feet.

The greater sage grouse is an upland bird species, iconic and completely dependent on sagebrush habitat for its existence; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the bird to warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2010. Its numbers have plummeted by more than 50 percent in recent decades due to fragmentation and loss of habitat (more of which would occur with the Southern Nevada groundwater pumping project). The Fish and Wildlife Service must make a decision on listing the bird for protections under the Endangered Species Act by 2015 under a settlement agreement with the Center.

At least 25 species of Great Basin springsnails would also be pushed toward extinction, and 14 species of desert fish would be hurt, including the Moapa dace and White River springfish. Frogs and toads would fare little better, with four species severely threatened by the dewatering.

Both wildlife and agriculture in the region would be in grave risk if SNWA's Snake Valley Pipeline is allowed to suck water out of the region. That's why local Native American tribes, farmers, ranchers, and environmentalists have all called on SNWA to shelf the costly pipeline and seriously consider less costly alternatives. That's also why a district court judge ruled against SNWA and its pipeline plan in December.

But wait, there's more. The Great Basin Water Network, along with White Pine County, Sierra Club, and other local allies, filed their own suit in federal court against SNWA and its proposed pipeline. Why?

Abby Johnson, President of the Great Basin Water Network, said the project would be “the biggest groundwater pumping project ever built in the United States and it would have devastating hydrological, biological and socioeconomic impacts across vast areas of eastern Nevada and Western Utah. In approving the project and the pipeline ROW [right of way], BLM [Bureau of Land Management] ignored its own science and conclusions that the environmental impacts would be irreversible, irretrievable and widespread. That’s arbitrary and capricious decision-making,” she said.

The Plaintiffs, which also include the Sierra Club, the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority, Utah Audubon Council, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Utah Rivers Council, and Salt Lake League of Women Voters, argue that the BLM did an inadequate analysis of the potential for drastic impacts upon air quality downwind of the project area. The drawdown from SNWA’s proposed pumping would dry up springs, wetlands and riparian areas, and public rangelands by dropping the water table by dozens to hundreds of feet, threatening the regional economic viability of ranching and tourism, and jeopardizing senior water rights. “The future of rural communities and wildlife in the massive target zone is at stake,” said Susan Lynn of GBWN. “The $15 billion project will be exceptionally risky and costly for both rural residents and Las Vegas ratepayers.” 

Simeon Herskovits, of Advocates for Community and Environment, the attorney for the groups, said, “All the scientific modeling, including SNWA’s own model, shows that the proposed groundwater pumping will have devastating effects on both existing water rights and sensitive environmental resources throughout a broad region encompassing a number of hydrologically connected valleys. The proposed mitigation plan relied on by the BLM for protection of federal resources is woefully vague and inadequate and has little to no hope of success.” Herskovits said.

Ouch. And it would especially be painful for those people in rural Nevada & Utah whose entire community & livelihood would be thrown into doubt.

But then again, it's already becoming painful for Clark County residents. Remember that SNWA's controversial 2012 water rate increases were deemed necessary in order to pay for construction of the Snake Valley Pipeline. So what has Southern Nevada gotten out of this? So far, it looks like Clark County residents are paying more for their water bills so SNWA can fight multiple legal battles in state and federal courts.

Look, we know climate change has only exacerbated Southern Nevada's precarious water supply. But is a $15 billion pipeline meant to bleed Rural Nevada & Utah dry in order to fuel more exurban real estate development truly the solution? Or would SNWA be better off by backing off and pursuing more efficient & realistic solutions?

Think about it. SNWA has already invested a whole lot in this pipeline. And what has that netted us so far? How much more money can we afford to stuff down the drain?

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