Federal scientist warns against water withdrawal

The withdrawal of the federal government's protests against the Southern Nevada Water Authority's drive to take rural water in northern Lincoln County spells potential disaster for groundwater users across hundreds of square miles of Nevada, including National Wildlife Refuges.

Scientists and conservationists base their concerns on independent analysis and the federal government's own scientific work, which finds that there is little water in the region and that water already is being used for human and environmental needs.

The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs signed a "stipulated agreement" Jan. 8 to abandon the federal protests against the SNWA effort to pump more than 11 billion gallons of water annually from three desert valleys in Lincoln County. The Nevada State Engineer, whose office decides how much water can be taken without significantly affecting existing users, is scheduled to consider the SNWA applications for water from the Delamar, Cave and Dry Lake valleys in early February.

The latest hearings are part of a multi-billion-dollar effort by the SNWA to pump rural water from Lincoln, White Pine and Clark counties to Las Vegas to fuel urban growth and supplement water from the Colorado River. Independent and federal scientists have warned of significant and long-term environmental impacts from the pumping.

In exchange for the Jan. 8 stipulated agreement and an earlier, similar agreement stripping federal protests from applications in White Pine County, the federal agencies received a promise that the SNWA would reduce its use of water if the feared impacts appear. However, ranchers and conservationists who oppose the "water grab" believe that the same political pressure that motivated the removal of federal protests would make it unlikely or impossible to reduce water use from the rural areas, especially after thousands of homes and businesses are dependent on the sources.

They also point out that the stipulated agreements put the proverbial fox in charge of guarding the hen house by giving SNWA a central role in monitoring its own groundwater pumping and determining whether that pumping is causing harmful impacts.

"What we are watching is a slow-motion train wreck, the virtual defoliation of a huge part of rural America," said Susan Lynn, coordinator with the Great Basin Water Network, one of many conservation groups opposing the SNWA effort. "The saddest part of this is that we have substantial and convincing evidence from the government's own experts that this is going to cause irreparable harm to Nevada's fragile environment and rural economies."

Lynn and conservationists point to a detailed analysis produced by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service hydrologist Dr. Timothy D. Mayer in November 2007 that said the entire flow system of eastern and southern Nevada, an area encompassing 16 connected valleys, has only a small fraction of the potential groundwater demanded by the SNWA. The Las Vegas agency is asking for almost 35,000 acre-feet annually from the Lincoln County valleys. But Mayer concluded that at best 3,500 could be appropriated without harming existing springs and groundwater rights.

Mayer's report can be found online at:http://water.nv.gov/hearings/dry_cave_delamar%20hearings/USFWS/Exhibit%20501%20Hydrology%20rpt%20Tim%20Mayer.pdf

In his analysis, Mayer stated that ""the system is completely appropriated and the State Engineer should deny all water right applications in the Dry Lake and Delamar Valleys." He noted that groundwater in those valleys and the White River Valley flows down-gradient to valleys, including valleys home to national wildlife refuges, which are already fully appropriated.

"Pahranagat Valley and White River Valley are considered completely appropriated and both basins are dependent on subsurface inflow from Cave Valley. Butterfield and Flag springs in White River Valley " support unique aquatic organisms and may be threatened by pumping up gradient in the southern part of the White River Valley, where the SNWA applications are located."

Mayer finally concludes: "Appropriation and pumping of some or all of the subsurface

outflow from Cave Valley potentially threatens spring discharge in both of these

down-gradient basins [White River and Pahranagat]."

Dennis Ghiglieri, a Sierra Club activist opposed to the SNWA plan, noted that the Nevada State Engineer would probably not hear Mayer's analysis because of the stipulation.

"Here we have what can only be considered a clear warning that unfortunately may not be heard because of the federal government's abdication of its stewardship responsibilities," Ghiglieri said. He compared the federal action to other failures of federal oversight including the failure of the levees protecting New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and the environmental destruction of California's Owens Valley to over-pumping of groundwater.

Mayer's work itself referenced 17 studies, nine State Engineer orders and rulings and 12 other research works to support his analysis.

"We cannot claim that we weren't warned. We can only say that the economic and political pressures were considered more important than the scientific analysis," Ghiglieri said. "Does the federal government believe the State Engineer will make a fully informed decision when one of the most significantly affected parties opts out of the hearing?"

Ghiglieri said that since the State Engineer's job is to protect the existing groundwater users, including natural and human users, the Interior Department should have at least presented the full range of evidence rather than simply opting out of the process.

--Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter