Paiutes want groundwater

LAS VEGAS - The cash-strapped Moapa Paiutes have made an impassioned plea for groundwater supplies for an electricity generation project that could offset what they call decades of ill treatment.

Tens of millions of dollars in revenues from a water-cooled power plant could fund new health facilities, a senior center, improved sewer lines and college scholarships for the tribe, tribal chairwoman Candice Grayman told State Engineer Hugh Ricci Friday.

The Moapa Paiutes were pushed in 1875 from their 2 million acres of ancestral lands onto what today is a 70,565-acre reservation northeast of Las Vegas.

''We need to send our kids to school so they can come back and help us on the reservation,'' Grayman said at the water czar's hearing at the Sawyer Building.

The Las Vegas Valley Water District opposes the tribe's request to pump 7,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from beneath its reservation, saying a plan to use Moapa Valley-area groundwater for urban expansion could be imperiled.

An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, or enough to serve a family of four or five for a year.

Surviving on meager revenues from a fireworks shop and a small casino on Interstate 15, the tribe long has sat in the shadow of Las Vegas' ongoing economic boom, Seattle-based attorney Steve Chestnut told Ricci.

''The Moapa tribe has not participated in the least,'' he said. ''They're in the basement while other people are in the penthouse. ... It's in the public welfare to somehow alleviate the historic injustice that has been done to the tribe.''

The Paiutes want Ricci to designate the cooling of the proposed plant as a preferred use for groundwater from the California Wash Basin, which encompasses their reservation.

The tribe would lease the groundwater to San Jose, Calif.-based Calpine Corp., which wants to build the plant and use the cool water to recondense steam the plant would use to turn some generating turbines. The recondensed steam could be reused within the facility.

Cooling the plant with water would allow the plant to produce as much as 20 percent more electricity than plants cooled with ambient air, Calpine Project Development Manager John Doyle told Ricci on Friday.

The preferred use designation could give the Indians' application priority over the Las Vegas water district's competing claim on as much as 14,000 acre-feet from the same basin. Ricci will consider the application to pump the water after he rules on the preferred use application.

The water lease and other plant revenues could generate as much as $200 million over 35 years for the tribe, revenue tribal officials said is sorely needed.

Under Nevada law, groundwater supplies are considered a public resource made available by the state engineer to anyone who can put them to a productive use without harming nearby wells. Generally, whoever stakes the earliest claim to water supplies wins the right to use them first.

Attorneys for the Las Vegas and Moapa Valley water districts argued Friday that designating plant-cooling as a preferred use would override that central precept, challenging a fundamental provision of Western water law.

''I think you're going to open up a Pandora's Box of problems,'' Moapa district attorney Bob Marshall said. ''I think you have to treat the tribe like you would everybody else. All people coming before the state engineer have to be treated equally.''

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1908 that Indian tribes have the right to streams and rivers running through their land, and Arizona's highest court last year applied the principle known as the Winters Doctrine to groundwater supplies. Chestnut said the Moapa tribe could exercise its rights under the doctrine if it cannot reach accord with the state of Nevada.


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