SALT LAKE CITY — Fearing Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's signature is imminent on a controversial water sharing agreement with Nevada, critics opposed to its provisions delivered a letter to his office Tuesday detailing their objections.
The agreement, signed by Nevada but on hold in Utah for multiple years, proposes to divide current available water and future groundwater supplies in Snake Valley, a basin which both states share.
Groundwater in central and eastern Nevada is being pursued by Southern Nevada Water Authority in support of its planned $3.5 billion, 285-mile pipeline to convey water to the Las Vegas metropolitan area.
Plagued by drought and a dwindling Colorado River and diminishing Lake Mead — which supplies more than 90 percent of water to the area — the water authority is looking to protect itself from future shortages and accommodate growth in Clark County, Nev. A conceptual plan on the groundwater pumping project also points to the security threat posed by being dependent on a single source of water.
A federal law requires such an agreement between Nevada and Utah be reached before any diversion of water takes place in a shared basin. Teams of negotiators from both states came up with the proposed division, which would avoid having any argument between the states settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Critics say the agreement is tipped in favor of Nevada at the peril of Utah farmers and ranchers who make their living in the west desert and depend on springs and wells to irrigate crops and supply drinking water.
"I am worried about the legal implications of a bad contract," said Linda Johnson, co-president of the Utah League of Women Voters. "My worry is that there is not going to be enough water to go around either way."
Although a Bureau of Land Management analysis keeps the proposed pipeline out of Snake Valley, opponents fearing any drawing down of the aquifer in adjacent basins will compromise water resources in Utah. They also fear that because the water authority holds pending water right applications for 50,679 acre feet of water a year in Snake Valley, any success in that arena could reroute the pipeline there.
Utah has developed the overwhelming majority of water in Snake Valley — 55,000 acre-feet to Nevada's 12,000 acre-feet — and the authority has hopes of tapping its share.
Under the pending agreement, Utah would get to develop an additional 6,000 acre-feet of water per year, while Nevada would get 35,000 acre-feet of water per year.
A trio of water law attorneys consulted by Herbert said under the water sharing scenario, Nevada would "catch up" to the point where there is a 50/50 split, but only if sufficient water is available.
The agreement includes an environmental protection plan and a mitigation fund to offset any potential damages, but critics said by the time those provisions kick in, the damage will have been done.
"The problem with mitigation is that it is too little too late," said Steve Erickson with the Citizens Education Project. "You are scrambling to get caught up and it takes years for that groundwater to be replenished."
It's been rumored that Herbert will sign the water-sharing agreement with Nevada as early as this month, when a final decision is also expected to be announced by the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada on whether the water authority obtains a right of way to put in the pipeline.
A legislatively established Snake Valley Advisory Council recently urged Herbert to hold off signing the agreement until that decision from the BLM has been issued. Herbert's office has said the agreement won't likely be signed until January at the earliest.
Erickson said there is no rush given its flaws and inadequate protections for Utah residents.
"What's the threat? This project is going to outlast many of us," Erickson said. "Renegotiating is in the best interest of Utah."
The letter delivered Tuesday includes 19 signatories from the Great Basin Water Network as well as the Utah Rivers Council.