There’s a stand of trees in Nevada’s Spring Valley that are sacred to native people. They’re worried a water pipeline to Las Vegas would destroy them. Reno Gazette Journal
Citing conservation gains and a third straw to the bottom of Lake Mead, the Southern Nevada Water Authority on Thursday voted to shelve a proposal for a multi-billion pipeline that would have moved water from Northern and Eastern Nevada to Las Vegas.
The vote means the pipeline staunchly opposed by rural communities, American Indian tribes and conservationists is dead – or at least going into a long, deep coma.
“Over the course of the past 30 years it has become clear the project does not make sense,” said Clark County Commissioner and SNWA board member Justin Jones.
The pipeline had once been viewed as a lifeline for Las Vegas to maintain economic growth that’s predicated on finding water to support new and existing development.
Southern Nevada is heavily dependent on a small share of Colorado River water it extracts from Lake Mead.
In recent years the lake has dropped to worryingly low levels, prompting ongoing calls for the region to diversify its supply.
The proposal to move as much as 200,000 acre-feet annually from rural Nevada was seen as an opportunity to do just that.
But opponents dug in and fought the plan every step of the way and recently won a string of legal and legislative decisions that put the plan on the ropes.
At the same time the makeup of the authority board changed and the authority found other paths to diversify the water supply.
Those include aggressive conservation efforts like lawn removal in Las Vegas-area subdivisions and infrastructure projects like a newly constructed pipe, or straw, that reaches near the bottom of Lake Mead.
“At this point the staff is recommending moving this project into deferred status,” SNWA general manager John Entsminger said before the board voted to undertake several measures that will effectively suspend the project.
The measures included:
- Withdrawal of pending water rights applications.
- Withdrawing rights-of-way for the pipeline on Bureau of Land Management Land.
- Withdrawing from federal agreements that supported development of the project.
- Writing off more than $330 million in costs accrued in development.
In a written statement after the vote, Entsminger credited the Lake Mead straw and expanded conservation for the decision and added that the authority’s 50-year plan would be changed to reflect the deferred status of the pipeline.
“This community’s recent conservation achievements and the completion of the Low Lake Level Pumping Station last month ensures we can meet our community’s projected water demands for decades to come, even with Lake Mead’s ongoing water level fluctuations,” Entsminger’s statement read. “Southern Nevada’s progressive water resource management strategies and comprehensive conservation programs provide more cost-effective options to enhance our long-term water resource portfolio.”
While the conversation around the vote was brief and subdued, opponents of the plan rejoiced at the news.
“Today’s vote is a victory for rural and urban Nevada,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network.
The group represented an unlikely coalition of ranchers, rural community leaders, environmentalists and native communities that rallied against the plan.
They argued, successfully, that the proposal would dry up the valleys it targeted and destroy rural and native communities and wildlife across eastern and northern Nevada.
“Vegas ratepayers will save billions of dollars and Great Basin aquifers will retain billions of gallons of water,” Roerink said.
White Pine County Commissioner Gary Perea called into the SNWA board meeting, which was held remotely due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic, to thank board members for the vote.
White Pine County, which has a county seat in Ely, is home to several of the valleys targeted in the plan.
“It has been a long process but I think you made the right decision,” Perea said. “I hope we start moving together as a state not as regions.”
For Shoshone people in White Pine County and beyond, the pipeline was viewed as a threat to their cultural identity.
That’s because Spring Valley, one of the areas targeted for export, has been a Shoshone gathering place since time immemorial.
And in the mid-to-late 1800s it was also the site of a series of massacres of Shoshone people, including women, children and elders, by military and non-military gunmen.
Shoshone people worried that exporting water from the valley would sap water from the roots of trees that still stand where their ancestors fell.
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Although the pipeline as originally envisioned is in indefinite suspension, SNWA does retain a hold on some rural water, including in the Spring Valley. The Spring Valley water is tied to ranches the authority bought as part of the exportation plan.
“SNWA plan to continue its ranch operations and maintaining its permitted water rights associated with those properties,” SNWA spokesman Bronson Mack said.
But Roerink said without additional water through pending applications, the water from the ranches alone isn’t enough to justify the pipeline proposal.
“Without the water that was the subject of our litigation this project just doesn’t pencil out,” Roerink said.
Benjamin Spillman covers the outdoors and environment in Northern Nevada, from backcountry skiing in the Sierra to the latest from Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.
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