Utah and Nevada divide underground water

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SALT LAKE CITY -- There were dueling formulas and angry reactions Thursday after Nevada and Utah officials shook hands on a deal to divide up underground water.

State negotiators say it's a fair agreement that will head off decades of water wars and assure a water supply for a growing Las Vegas. Utah leaders promise the agreement will protect existing water users and the environment.

"We felt it was a fair and equitable settlement to do a 50-50 split of the water resource," said Allen Biaggi, Nevada's director of conservation and natural resources.


But some western Utahns believe they're being hung out to dry and accuse the state of rushing into a deal to help "Sin City" at Utah's expense. And they have a different interpretation of the forumla the state's are using to divide the water.

"A 7-to-1 split, that's in a valley that's mostly in Utah? Yes, that's a give away," said Mark Ward, attorney for Millard County.

The controversy stems from the big problem Las Vegas faces as it grows in the future. Nearly all of its water comes from a river that's already fully divided up by seven states.

"Las Vegas is about 90 percent reliant on the Colorado River," Biaggi said. "That's never good for a municipal system to be solely reliant on a single water source."

The Southern Nevada Water Authority wants to build a new supply line, a pipeline to the Utah border, where a huge aquifer underlies both states. The draft agreement with Utah paves the way, after a built-in delay of at least 10 years.

"We've never said we want to kill the pipeline," said Mike Styler, Utah Director of Natural Resources. "Our concern has always been: 'Go ahead and build the pipeline, but you can't put any of our water, the water that belongs to Utah, in that pipeline.'"

The tricky part has been defining how much water each state is entitled to. Most of the precipitation falls on Nevada mountains, and most of that water it is used on farms and ranches in Utah valleys. The two states agreed not to take anything from existing users.

"This is the cornerstone of the agreement and has the highest priority of protection," Biaggi said.

Studies show nature refills the aquifer each year with as much as 132,000 acre feet a year. The agreement splits that number in half.

"We've got 66,000 per state," Styler said.

But Nevada gets the lion's share of the water that's currently unused, water for growth--36,000 versus 5,000 acre-feet. Western Utah counties are infuriated by the math.

"There must be some other political machination happening here because you cannot justify a 7-to-1 split in favor of Nevada when most of the land and most of the historical use has been in Utah," Ward said.

Critics also claim the pumping threatens springs, plants and wildlife and will turn western Utah into a dust bowl.

State officials argue the draft agreement has built-in protections to ensure that won't happen. They plan hearings next week, before it goes to both governors 30 days from now.

E-mail: jhollenhorst@ksl.com

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