SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Wednesday he'll not sign a controversial water-sharing agreement with Nevada, despite the pressure from Utah's neighbor and the threat of a lawsuit.
“My decision was made as I visited with the good people who live in western Utah — those most affected by the outcomes,” Herbert said.
“I have also visited with local officials and county commissioners, even as recently as (Tuesday). A majority of local residents do not support the agreement with Nevada. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience sign the agreement because I won’t impose a solution on those most impacted that they themselves cannot support,” he said.
Herbert's refusal to sign the agreement comes nearly four years after it was drafted, a decision put in limbo because of challenges that had to be settled by the Nevada courts, protests over water rights and a federal agency completing an environmental analysis.
I cannot in good conscience sign the agreement because I won’t impose a solution on those most impacted that they themselves cannot support.
–Gov. Gary Herbert
The two states have negotiated for years over the division of water from an aquifer in Snake Valley, which straddles the border and is home to small ranching and farming communities.
“There is no more complex and emotional issue with which I have grappled as governor of this great state,” Herbert said. “I appreciate all who have engaged in good faith in this effort, particularly the state of Nevada, to find a mutually agreeable solution.
"The fact that I will not sign this agreement does not change our water priorities as a state. We will continue to do everything we can to protect Utah’s water, protect individual water rights, and protect Utah’s environment and way of life,” he said.
A congressional act mandates that states reach agreement on water resources found in any shared basin, or absent that, the U.S. Supreme Court makes the decision.
Utah has been under pressure to sign the agreement, with threats of lawsuit hinted at.
Water availability in the mostly arid region has been elevated to an urgent importance given a plan by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to pump groundwater from the eastern basins of Nevada for delivery to Las Vegas.
Controversy over the proposed pipeline
Facing drought and dwindling levels at Lake Mead — its chief water supply — the authority is trying to shore up alternative water supplies to support the desert metropolis by proposing a 300-mile pipeline to convey pumped groundwater to the Las Vegas metro area.
The pipeline, billed as a safety net by the authority, has been met with stiff resistance by multiple Utah counties because of concerns that any withdrawals — even from adjacent valleys — would be unsustainable.
Right now, a Bureau of Land Management decision keeps the pipeline out of Snake Valley, but Herbert has said it would be foolish to believe the water authority will not want to develop that resource.
Under the proposed agreement, no pumping would have occurred in Utah, but the critics have asserted that any drawing down the aquifer on the Nevada side would leave Snake Valley even drier than it already is.
Nevada would have been able to develop an additional 35,000 acre-feet of water per year in Snake Valley, while Utah would have received 6,000 acre feet of water a year, under the agreement.
The discrepancy came from the fact Utah has already tapped the bulk of water resources in the valley — 55,000 acre-feet to Nevada's 12,000 acre-feet — and the agreement, supporters say, would move the states to a equitable 50-50 split of 132,000 acre-feet between the two states.
Millard County commissioners said while seemingly "fair and innocuous" at first glance, the split disastrously ignores Utah's historic use of anywhere from 76 percent to 84 percent of the available groundwater in Snake Valley for municipal and irrigation use and domestic groundwater systems.
The counties and critics have said Utah didn't need to be forced into signing the agreement over fear of a U.S. Supreme Court battle because the agreement wrongly ignores impacts to one overall hydrologic flow system.
Last month, Herbert met with elected officials in Millard County and traveled to meet with residents in Snake Valley, attending a community meeting in Eskdale.
Herbert has also met with the Steve Erickson with the Great Basin Water Network and one of the most ardent foes of the pipeline.
Erickson, afterward, said it was clear that Herbert was struggling with the decision and seeking input from all corners.
"He is taking it seriously," he said, "and it is obviously not an easy decision."
Contributing: Andrew Wittenberg