Monday, October 05, 2009

From USDP Blog: OSE OpEd - Snake Valley: Secret talks, quick deals and a sucker's bet

At some point during the past four years the Huntsman administration eagerly entered into secret negotiations with Nevada to create a pact to divide 132,000 acre-feet of water each year in the Snake Valley before the Southern Nevada Water Authority can stake its claim on 50,000 to 60,000 acre-feet for Las Vegas.

Governor Herbert seems determined to sign a Snake Valley Compact as soon as possible without regard for public input, reliable information about the amount of available water, or the consequences of over-allocating our resources.

The proposed deal is worse than gambling our inheritance away in Vegas before we can receive it, it is like writing a check at the Mirage casino without ever taking our chances at the table.

There is no potential prize for Utah. Utah water would leave for Nevada while we keep our fingers crossed each year for sufficient rain and snow to replace what we send across the border.

No Utah communities could benefit from this bet. The Utah Medical Association warns that the wages of this sin may be death. Ranchers and farmers, wildlife and plants, and downwinders along the Wasatch Front could end up paying the ultimate price when the water is gone.

A signing ceremony may be immanent. There has been a seeming rush. Last week the Snake Valley Research Advisory Council was summoned to a meeting in Baker, Nevada with little notice to the public or council members.

The process seems inverted. The draft admits to insufficient information to determine with precision the available groundwater supply saying research will be done during the next decade of planning for a 300-mile pipeline. Doesn't it make more sense to do the research first then agree on what to do with the water?
Additionally, the recession has hit Las Vegas hard. So hard that water demand has dropped and construction on what is referred to as a "third straw" to draw all the water Nevada is entitled to out of Lake Mead was recently suspended (Las Vegas Sun, Sept. 13, 2009).

It is impossible to make the case for rushing the Snake Valley Compact when southern Nevada water districts are postponing opportunities to withdraw water they already have at their disposal from Lake Mead.
Las Vegas clearly can live without Snake Valley water for a few years while we conduct the research needed to determine with more certainty what water resources exist on both the Utah and Nevada side of the border and how much can be safely pumped out for use in Las Vegas or elsewhere.

But there is more to consider. Utah will likely wake up one day to find Las Vegas has been taking water at an unsustainable rate. Vegetation in the valley has died ending farming and ranching. The National Wildlife Refuge at Fish Springs is drying up. Dust storms blow into the Wasatch Front from the West Desert containing mercury, carcinogens from 900 nuclear tests, and fungus spores that create potentially lethal infections.

Scientists with the Utah Geological Survey say a drop in the water table of more than 100 feet are likely to result leading to dust storms if there is pumping on the magnitude envisioned by the pact. The Utah Medical Association has warned that adverse health impacts may be widespread.

There is little indication the governor is taking these concerns seriously. The proposed deal promises only that "appropriate action" would be taken should the water drawdown prove harmful.

Would they really put a halt to the project after such massive investments? How quickly can we really expect ground water supplies to recover, if at all, in a place like Utah's fragile West Desert? How many more decades of fighting for compensation for downwinder victims will we have to endure?

This pact only pays lip service if there is harm, not real penalties in real dollars.

One last thing to consider as we gamble away our future water, covetous eyes are all around us. Southern Utah has talked about a pipeline from Lake Powell; legislator Mike Noel and his former colleague Aaron Tilton want vast amounts of Green River water for a nuclear power plant; Denver wants a pipeline from Flaming Gorge.

Cumulatively these projects, if all implemented, would consume hundreds of thousands of acre-feet. Can Utah afford to gamble away our water, and possibly our lives, with Nevada?

This guest commentary was provided by Utah Democratic Party Chair Wayne Holland and published by the Ogden Standard Examiner on October 3, 2009.

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