Walking the Pipeline

Hearings to determine whether the Southern Nevada Water Authority will get a permit to pump 126,000 acre-feet of water annually from four rural valleys to Las Vegas wrap up in Carson City Nov. 18, but we have to wait until March to find out if Jason King, the state engineer tasked with deciding the issue, will OK the plan.

King has a bit of a tightrope to walk over the next four months. While water is a public commodity in Nevada, and the SNWA has as much right to it as anyone else, he can legally restrict pumping if it’s detrimental to current users. That’s why so much of the testimony in Carson City focused on how fast the basins recharge, and where the water comes from.

The SNWA says it will only take an amount of water less than or equivalent to the basins’ annual recharge so aquifers aren’t drawn down. Without a 300-mile pipeline from rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties, the SNWA argues, Las Vegas won’t have a water supply independent of the Colorado River, a fact that will scare off businesses and potentially throttle economic growth in Southern Nevada.

Opponents—including environmentalists, ranchers, some Native American tribes and the Mormon Church—countered that there’s no way to know how much the basins recharge annually and where the water comes from. They believe Las Vegas doesn’t need the water—and even if it did, getting it from the rural valleys is ruinously shortsighted.

King’s decision may end a battle, but the pipeline war is not over. A permit would give the SNWA permission to pump. How to pay for the pipeline—with an estimated cost of up to $15 billion including interest on the bonds—is another matter entirely.