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Is This the End of a 30-Year Fight Over a Proposed Water Pipeline?

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(AP Photo/John Locher, File)

In this July 16, 2014 file photo, what was once a marina sits high and dry due to Lake Mead receding in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Las Vegas.

On May 21, the Southern Nevada Water Authority board of directors voted to indefinitely defer its groundwater development project, which opponents had dubbed the “water grab.”  

 

The unanimous vote brought an end to more than three decades of acrimonious battle between the SNWA and Great Basin Water Network 

 

That coalition of environmentalists, Native American tribes, ranchers, and other opponents believed the water authority’s plan would turn 200 square miles of cultural sites, farms and ranches, and public lands into a dust bowl. They also criticized what they estimated would be a $15.5-billion price tag. 

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Now, it seems, they've gotten what they wanted all along.

The controversial project really got started under Pat Mulroy, the former head of the SNWA. 

In the 90s, Mulroy said the state told the water authority it could no longer get more water from the Colorado River, which forced the authority to start looking elsewhere. 

This was also at a time when Southern Nevada's population was booming.

“If you can’t go to the river. If you can’t create some kind of partnerships on the river, you have no alternative but to look north for additional water supplies,” she said. “The in-state project was always a project of desperation. When you’ve got your back against the wall, and you’ve got nowhere else to go what do you do?”

Mulroy said the water authority was put into a box until 2000 when the state's stance changed and they were allowed to make partnerships with other river users.

At that time, the 50-year water resource plan that the authority must submit to the state did not include the pipeline project.

Things changed again in 2002 when the drought started, Mulroy said. The pipeline was put back on the table as water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead dropped.

At the time the low-level pumps currently being used were not available, Mulroy said, leaving the authority with some difficult decisions.

“We were confronted with the horrible reality that this community loses 90 percent of its water supply,” she said.

In addition, the Great Recession had begun and foreign investors wanted reassurance from Mulroy that Southern Nevada had enough water to survive into the future. She said the only way to meet the state's required 50-year water resource plan and reassure investors was to include the pipeline.

Now, she noted, things have changed, and after years of advocating for the pipeline project, Mulroy supports the water authorities' decision.

“The water authority looked at its water portfolio. They had the benefit of the low-level pumps that didn’t exist before. [General Manager] John [Entsminger] is feeling comfortable that he can manage through shortages in the Colorado River, given the amount of water we’ve stored over the last 25 years, that he thinks he can get through,” she said.

County Commissioner Justin Jones is a member of the SNWA board. He made the motion to indefinitely defer the project. He agreed with Mulroy that at one time the pipeline was a plan of desperation.

“At the time, it may have seemed like the only option. We have other options now because of the SNWA has worked hard to develop those other options," he said, "They have been a pioneer when it comes to conservation measures, turf removal, return flow credits and other options that we’re looking at right now.”

Jones said the goal is now conservation. Because SNWA has pioneered so many ways to conserve water, it is now working with other users of the Colorado River to create projects to do the same. 

More water staying in the system in the first place means there is more water available for everyone in the long term.

The main opponent to the pipeline project was the Great Basin Water Network. Kyle Roerink is the executive director of the network. Needless to say, his organization is celebrating the authority's decision.

“It’s great. We’re all coming together. We’re all on the same side now,” he said.

Roerink said it's not just the people living in the counties where the water was going to be pumped from that should be elated. He said Southern Nevada ratepayers should also be happy.

“it’s going to be the cheaper option in the long run. It’s the smarter option. It’s the more environmentally conscious option," he said, "I think all southern Nevadans should tip their hats to the board for making this move.”

Roerink said the project is "dead as a doornail" for now, but he admits that years from now the pipeline could return. In addition, the Las Vegas pipeline project is not the only one in the West that is causing controversy. 

A project to pipe water from Lake Powell to Southern Utah is in the works. 

 

Guests

Pat Mulroy, former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority; Justin Jones, board member, Southern Nevada Water Authority and Clark County Commissioner; Kyle Roerink, executive director, Great Basin Water Network

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