Tensions Rise Amid Demise of Utah-Nevada Water Pact

By: - April 8, 2013 12:00 am

A bathtub ring is seen on islands that dot the background behind Lake Mead Marina in Las Vegas. The man-made lake, fed by the Colorado, provides about 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water. But climate change is causing levels to drop, prompting officials to look elsewhere for water, such as the Snake Valley aquifer below Nevada’s border with Utah. That has fueled tension between the states. (AP)

Utah has sent a message to Nevada: What flows into Utah stays in Utah, even if Las Vegas is thirsty.

Fouryears after the states crafted a landmark pact to divvy up more than 43 billiongallons of water beneath their shared border, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said lastweek he would not sign it, dealing a setback to the desert metropolis that haslong eyed the resources.

Thedecision nixes a pact that was a decade in the making, creating uncertaintyover how the states will share the supply. It could lead to the country’s nextdrawn out, costly water war. Or, perhaps, a massive sale of Utah’s excess waterrights along the Colorado River.

“Anyonewho says they know what’s happening next is exaggerating,” said Daniel McCool, aUniversity of Utah water rights expert and authorof “River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America’s Rivers.”

But one thing is certain: The agreement’s apparent demise provides a window into the West’s complicated water politics, which are growing more so as climate change and rapid development further strain scarce supplies.

In 2004, Congress required Utah and Nevada to reach acompromise before transferring any water in the 120-mile-long Snake Valley, anarea of mountains, canyons and rolling foothills straddling the states’ bordersthat is home to Great Basin National Park.

The states produced a plan by 2009, splitting the rights downthe middle. Utah had already appropriated about 18 billion gallons, more thanfour times what Nevada had. Under the agreement, Nevada would have receivedanother 12 billion gallons per year, with Utah getting 2 billion more.

Nevada quickly signed. But Herbert, a Republican, long put off hisdecision amid legal challenges and further study.

The pact would allow Nevada to send Snake Valley water to LasVegas through a proposed pipeline that could also include straws to nearbycommunities.

Some 90 percent of Southern Nevada’s water comes from LakeMead, the Hoover Dam reservoir fed by the Colorado River. Studies have shown, however, the supply is shrinking by as much as 7 percent eachyear, exacerbated by recent severe drought.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority has called the pipeline asafety net, only to be built if Lake Mead becomes dangerously low, which somewater experts say could happen within a decade. But questions have arisen aboutwhether the authority could finance the multi-billion project.

In Utah and parts of Nevada, the pipeline prospect has proved unpopular, spurring loudprotests from a variety of groups, including environmentalists, Native Americantribes, farmers and ranchers who worry the project would damage the communitiesand threaten their way of life.

“The project would create a massive dustbowl,” said Zach Frankel,executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, which has opposed the pipelineand the pact.

The ultimate fear is that Snake Valley would face the samefate as California’s Owens Lake, which catastrophically dried up nearly acentury ago when officials diverted its water source — the Owens River— to feedbooming Los Angeles. Today, though some flow has returned, the vast salty area northeast of Los Angeles remains the largest single source ofdust pollution in the U.S.

LastOctober, a trio of water attorneys advised Herbert that the agreement was thepreferred option to a lengthy legal battle.

“The agreements, while not perfect, provide a frameworkto protect the interests of water users and citizens as a whole in each stateand provide a process to address adverse impacts early on if detected to avoidsignificant harm to anyone,” the report said.

But on Wednesday, aftervisiting locals who would be impacted by a water transfer, Herbert announced hewould not sign.

“There is no more complex andemotional issue with which I have grappled as governor of this great state,” hesaid. “I won’t impose a solution on those most impacted that they themselvescannot support.”

Now, it’s Nevada’s move, but it’sunclear what it will do.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority said it wasdisappointed in Herbert’s decision. “In the coming days and weeks, we willevaluate our options to address this unprecedented action,” it said in astatement.

Nevada governor Brian Sandoval’s office referredquestions to the state’s Division of Environmental Protection, which did not answermessages.

McCool, the water expert, said Las Vegas’ watercrisis, along with the political and financial challenges of proposed projectsto meet its needs, could spur Utah to sell some of its unallocated rights alongthe Colorado to Nevada. Or, further inthe future, perhaps all seven states will rework the 91-year-old Colorado RiverCompact to give Nevada a bigger share.

Under the compact, Nevada only receives 4 percentof the allocations. That’s because no one in 1922 anticipated some 2 millionpeople would eventually make their lives in the desert.

“Thestraw that breaks the camel’s back is going to be Las Vegas,” said McCool, who dubs this period in western waterhistory “the big shakeout.”

“This is where we’ll figure out who has the political will and connections to get this thing done.”

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