This past week’s ruling by a state judge is doubtlessly the last straw for an already moribund attempt by Las Vegas to expropriate groundwater from Lincoln and White Pine counties.
Though the Southern Nevada Water Authority tried to spin the outcome as a win, because the judge did affirm Las Vegas needs the water and State Engineer Jason King has the authority to approve the transfer, restrictions imposed by Senior Judge Robert Estes make such a transfer highly unlikely, as related in this week’s newspaper column, available online at The Ely Times and the Elko Daily Free Press.
King in March 2012 had approved the transfer of 84,000 acre-feet of water from Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys — likely the largest interbasin water transfer in U.S. history. Las Vegas water utilities first applied for that unappropriated groundwater in 1989. The Engineer’s approval prompted a lawsuit from the Great Basin Water Network (GBWN) and others.
In his ruling Judge Estes repeatedly called the plans for monitoring, mitigating and managing (MMM) flawed and the water transfer plan “arbitrary and capricious.”
“There are no objective standards to determine when mitigation will be required and implemented,” the judge wrote. “The Engineer has listed what mitigation efforts can possibly be made, i.e., stop pumping, modifying pumping, change location of pumps, drill new wells … but does not cite objective standards of when mitigation is necessary.”
Judge Estes concluded unambiguously that if “it is premature to set triggers and thresholds, it is premature to grant water rights.” He remanded the Engineer’s rulings for recalculation of water availability and further studies.
Abby Johnson, president of the GBWN, reacted to the Estes opinion by saying, “This decision should send a clear message to SNWA and Nevada leaders that this project is doomed to fail and should be cancelled now in order to save Las Vegas ratepayers and Nevada taxpayers billions of wasted dollars.”
If nothing else, the Estes ruling is almost certain to reduce the amount of water Las Vegas could tap from its northern neighbors, making that water even more costly per gallon.
A study for the water authority by Hobbs, Ong & Associates of Las Vegas found that Las Vegas water rates would have to triple to pay for the project.
The judge’s mandates and the costs combine to make this water grab extremely doubtful, no matter how thirsty Las Vegas gets.