Justices: Argument for raiding basin doesn't hold water

Excuse the folks in Sandy Valley for feeling a little giddy. It isn't every day David beats Goliath, the Bad News Bears knock off the New York Yankees, and Rudy Ruettiger scores a touchdown.

But that's what they have done.

If you pass through the desert community 50 miles from Las Vegas and see the locals proposing toasts with glassfuls of water, it's because they accomplished the improbable - some would say impossible -- by defeating the state engineer and, by proxy, the behemoth Vidler Water Co. after a nearly seven-year struggle.

Water grab denied!

The state Supreme Court recently reversed a District Court decision to follow state Engineer Hugh Ricci's recommendation that Vidler be granted 415 acre-feet of water from the Sandy Valley Basin, which it planned to pump over the mountain to Primm for future development at the Nevada-California state line. Vidler was working on behalf of Primm South Real Estate Co., which owns 825 acres of desert.

During the application hearing, Primm South Vice President Doug Clemetson testified about the company's current water use and future development plans, which ranged from expanding a power plant and adding to the existing mall, to building employee housing, a warehouse park, theme park, and even a train station. He basically said the company's expansion depended on obtaining the Sandy Valley allotment. But even the optimistic Clemetson had to admit there wasn't sufficient customer traffic to support a theme park.

Despite the lack of immediate need at Primm and the high likelihood of overpumping in the Sandy Valley aquifer, Ricci granted a 415-acre-foot portion of Vidler's 1,400-acre-foot request.

District Judge David Wall upheld the decision, and Sandy Valley residents were forced to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Along the way, the residents' attorney, Lamond Mills, died after a lengthy illness. Al Marquis, who owns the Kingston Ranch in the valley, stepped up and represented the community's successful appeal.

Justice James Hardesty, with Justices William Maupin and Mark Gibbons concurring, wrote that Ricci "failed to properly consider the evidence in determining the need for water in the import basin." The justices said Ricci "failed to make the appropriate findings, his decision to grant Vidler Water's interbasin groundwater transfer application was not supported by substantial evidence, and we reverse the district court's order denying appellants' petition for judicial review."

A major flaw in Ricci's calculations, say residents, is the fact he didn't calculate the large amount of water drawn from the aquifer by farms and ranches on the California side of the valley. The Supreme Court didn't address that issue in its decision.

Although Vidler was not technically part of the appeal, the decision amounted to a sound rebuke of the company's methodology and the engineer's reasoning.

Chalk one up for the little guys.

Nancy and Warren Knight have made Sandy Valley their home for 25 years. They've kept a close watch on the valley's water issues.

"Isn't it wonderful?" Knight says of the victory. "We're near a large, very exciting city, but most of the people that are out here want that kind of access to something, but not want to have to put up with the noise and the hustle and the bustle. They want a quiet, sort of going-back-in-time atmosphere. We have elbow room. We do have a lot of freedoms and a lot more independence than we do when we go back over that hill into town."

But that freedom isn't worth much without a reliable water supply. The community raised $60,000 to fight the giant.

Joy Fiore has been a Sandy Valley resident for a dozen years. Like others, she knows stories about the area's delicate water table. Locals have drilled wells of similar depths just 20 feet apart and had one come up dry. Deep wells have gone dry in recent years, and the valley has pockets of water with high salt content.

"We really have no idea what the annual recharge is," says Fiore, a retired geologist. "I think that water should be the constraint for growth out here."

Water management in the desert -- what a novel concept.

"There's been some trouble with dropping water levels, and that could cause incredible hardship for everyone out there," Marquis says. "If you don't have water, you have nothing."

Thanks to the high court's ruling, the little people of Sandy Valley have a genuine cause for celebration.

• John L. Smith's column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal's Opinion page. E-mail him at smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.


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