LAS VEGAS — Nevada’s top state water official begins hearings Monday on a crucial issue in a plan for Las Vegas to drill drinking water wells beneath arid rangeland in rural valleys just west of the Nevada-Utah state line.
State Engineer Jason King in Carson City has to decide, again, if pumping will irreparably harm basins serving farmers, Indian tribes, a Mormon church ranch and the counties of White Pine in Nevada and Millard and Juab in Utah.
The hearings are expected to last two weeks. They amount to a do-over ordered by state District Court Judge Robert Estes in Ely in December 2013.
The judge rejected as “arbitrary and capricious” the state engineer’s March 2012 approval for the Southern Nevada Water Authority plan.
A decision won’t be made immediately, said Susan Joseph-Taylor, deputy Nevada Division of Water Resources administrator.
The judge ordered the state to recalculate if there’s enough water underground to supply the project, to identify an equilibrium point for pumping and replenishment, and to set standards for limiting “unreasonable effects” if pumping is allowed in the Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys.
“Our position is that balance can be achieved, but it’s going to require that we do some pumping to see how the basin and environmental resources respond,” said Bronson Mack, spokesman for the water authority in Las Vegas.
But environmental groups in Nevada and Utah and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which operates a sprawling ranch in the Spring Valley, say there’s not enough water in ancient underground basins to supply more than 165,000 homes without turning valleys into dust bowls.
“We don’t think the Southern Nevada Water Authority has even come close to presenting the kind of evidence to satisfy the legal requirements that the court set,” said Simeon Herskovits, an attorney representing the Great Basin Water Network and a coalition of environmental organizations, ranchers, farmers and local governments in the case.
The water agency acknowledges drilling wells and building a 250-mile (400-kilomter) pipeline will cost billions of dollars. Funds have not been allocated.
Officials insist the pipeline will become essential if drought keeps shrinking the Lake Mead reservoir on the Colorado River, which supplies 90 percent of Las Vegas drinking water.
Nearly three in four Nevada residents live in and around Las Vegas, home to 2 million people and host to 40 million visitors a year.
Mack said agency lawyers will show King that the amount of water taken from the basin won’t exceed the amount of water that flows into the basin through natural precipitation.