SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he was struggling over whether to let Las Vegas pump massive amounts of groundwater from the Nevada-Utah border.
Herbert promised a decision within weeks, while saying he was reluctant to sign an agreement with Nevada. If Herbert refuses to sign the pact, Las Vegas will grab the groundwater anyway, his lawyers say.
The water comes from an ice-age aquifer under 120-mile-long Snake Valley, which supports ranching and farming on both sides of the Utah-Nevada border.
Herbert described his thinking as changing from day to day, “depending on how I wake up.” He said it was clear that the scattered communities of Snake Valley in Utah and Nevada are opposed to letting the Southern Nevada Water Authority build a 263-mile pipeline stretching from the rural areas to the desert gambling metropolis.
“This is a matter of measuring risk, and either way we go there’s some risk to Utah because of what Nevada is doing,” Herbert said Thursday at his monthly televised news conference at KUED studios. “The answer for me would be for Nevada to not do the pipeline. ... I wish they would just abandon the concept altogether. It would make my life a lot easier.”
Utah water attorneys say the agreement is better than a protracted court battle between the two states.
“In the absence of these agreements, Nevada, because of its more pressing need for water, may simply appropriate the remaining available water in the Snake Valley groundwater system to the exclusion of Utah’s needs for future water supplies,” three lawyers advised Herbert in a report filed in November.
The pact would evenly split Snake Valley’s groundwater between Utah and Nevada. Patricia Mulroy, the water authority’s general manager, has said the pact would reduce Las Vegas’ dependence on the drought-prone Colorado River.
“It’s a tough issue and fraught with emotion. It’s a complex issue,” Herbert said Thursday. “Only a handful of water attorneys understand the complexity and legal ramifications of it.”
He added, “We can’t tell Nevada what to do. It’s their decision. But we have skin in the game and water in Snake Valley, and I can promise you all that my goal is very clear. No. 1, we will not give up one molecule of water to Nevada that is Utah water. We will protect the rights of those who already have water rights on Utah’s side.”
Herbert said pumping groundwater could dry out Snake Valley, which could blow dust storms toward Utah’s heavily populated Wasatch Front and worsen air pollution. Dozens of environmental groups are urging Herbert to nix the deal for that and other reasons.
The agreement calls for pumping to be curtailed if groundwater is withdrawn faster than it can be recharged by surrounding mountains. It also delays pumping for 10 years while environmental studies establish a baseline of environmental conditions.
“Again, this is a tough one,” Herbert said. “We’re going to have to pull the trigger on this one way or another within the next two or three weeks.”