Hearings are underway in Carson City to determine how much, if any, groundwater the Las Vegas water district may pump from aquifers in White Pine, Lincoln and Nye counties.
The hearings are being conducted by state engineer Jason King, who previously had granted the Southern Nevada Water District 84,000 acre-feet a year. A state judge sent King back to the drawing board when he ruled plans for monitoring, mitigating and managing the water transfer were “arbitrary and capricious.”
Senior Judge Robert Estes wrote, “There are no objective standards to determine when mitigation will be required and implemented. 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 that if “it is premature to set triggers and thresholds, it is premature to grant water rights.”
Judge Estes listed, as an example of objective standards, the plan in place for mitigation at Devil’s Hole in Armagosa Valley, home of an endangered minnow. He said mitigation is triggered when the water level falls 2.7 feet below a copper washer. “This is an objective and recognizable standard.”
An attorney representing the water district was quoted as saying Monday, “The state engineer did not err in granting SNWA’s permits. The same quantity of water — and in some cases more water — can be granted.”
That doesn’t jibe with a 2014 study by the U.S. Geological Survey that found the proposed increases in water withdrawals in and near Snake Valley by the SNWA would likely result in declining groundwater levels and a decrease in natural discharge to springs and streams.
“Because of the magnitude of the proposed development project and the interconnected nature of groundwater basins in the region, there have been concerns that new pumping will disrupt Snake Valley’s groundwater supplies and threaten the wetlands and ranches that rely upon them,” said Melissa Masbruch, USGS scientist and lead author of the new report. “This study can help assess the effects of future groundwater withdrawals on groundwater resources in the Snake Valley area.”
The study calculated all the groundwater recharge for Snake Valley from various sources, including precipitation, unconsumed irrigation and inflow from other aquifers and found that the valley groundwater receives about 175,000 acre-feet. But when all of the outflow is added up — current wells, springs, streams and outflow to other aquifers— it is almost precisely the same amount of water — equilibrium.
This prompted the authors of the study to warn, “Increased well withdrawals within these high transmissivity areas will likely affect a large part of the study area, resulting in declining groundwater levels, as well as leading to a decrease in natural discharge to springs …”
A study for the water authority by Hobbs, Ong & Associates of Las Vegas found the cost to drill wells and build pipelines and pumps to send the groundwater to Las Vegas would be $15 billion or, in some years, $2,000 an acre-foot — while farmers in California and Arizona can buy Colorado River water for $20 an acre-foot. The study said Las Vegas water rates would have to triple to pay for the project.