CARSON CITY — A two-day court hearing on a controversial and embattled proposal to pump groundwater from rural eastern Nevada to meet demand in the Las Vegas Valley gets underway Tuesday before a state judge in Ely.
The hearing revisits the August 2018 findings of the state’s top water regulator, who grudgingly rejected Southern Nevada Water Authority’s pipeline plan based on a court order that he called flawed. Senior District Judge Robert Estes, who issued that 2013 order, also is presiding in this week’s hearing.
Decades-old plans to supplement Las Vegas’s strained Colorado-river water supply by pumping groundwater hundreds of miles from White Pine and Lincoln counties are opposed by conservationists as well as residents, ranchers, tribes and other property interests in the state’s arid rural northeast corner. Opponents believe aquifers that would be tapped for the pipeline are not sustainable water sources and draining them would damage local habitats and livelihoods that depend on them.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority says the pipeline, with a cost estimated at roughly $15 billion, could supply water for 170,000 homes but won’t be needed until the mid-2030s at the earliest.
The proposal has been fought over in state and federal courts for more than a decade. The state’s water regulator granted the authority permission to pump up to 84,000 acre-feet annually, but Estes struck that decision down in 2013 and ordered regulators to recalculate a sustainable drawdown.
In his mixed August 2018 ruling, then-State Engineer Jason King said he was bound by that order to reject the authority’s proposal. But he also signed off on the water agency’s monitoring and mitigation plan.
King retired in January. His ruling has both the water agency and project opponents looking for the judge to reverse and uphold different provisions.
The water authority, in a statement on its website, said the engineer’s finding “makes clear that there is water available” in the region’s basins and that the 2013 court ruling a “imposed unprecedented requirements into the science of water appropriation in Nevada.”
But Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, a coalition of opposing interests, called the project “a mirage” backed by special interests that would hurt the state in the long run in a statement issued in advance of the hearings.