LAS VEGAS (CN) – Regional water consortia, environmentalists, Native American tribes, the League of Woman Voters and other filed two federal lawsuits challenging a proposed 263-mile pipeline to deliver groundwater from rural eastern Nevada to Las Vegas: “the biggest groundwater pumping project ever built in the United States.”
The two federal complaints, weighing in at a combined 107 pages, say the groundwater pumping and transfer will threaten protected species and permanently damage the ecosystem. In fact, it will authorize pumping more groundwater than the target area contains.
In the short complaint, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Interior. It claims the government violated the National Environmental Policy Act by authorizing the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s Clark, Lincoln and White Pine Counties groundwater development, which calls for construction of a 263-mile pipeline and related facilities.
The accompanying 75-page lawsuit makes similar complaints against the defendants. The dozen plaintiffs in this case carry considerable political weight. They are White Pine County, Nevada; the Great Basin Water Network; the Sierra Club; the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority; the Confederated Tribes Of The Goshute Reservation; the Ely Shoshone Tribe; the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe; the Baker, Nevada Water And Sewer General Improvement District; Utah Physicians For A Healthy Environment; the Utah Rivers Council; Utah Audubon Council; and the League Of Women Voters Of Salt Lake, Utah.
The giant, contested project “centers on the pumping and export of groundwater from fragile, groundwater-dependent ecosystems and agricultural communities in rural Nevada on a scale that is greatly in excess of any previous undertaking, and would be the biggest groundwater pumping project ever built in the United States,” lead plaintiff White Pine County says in its complaint.
(The Owens Valley project in California, which ruined Mono Lake to feed Los Angeles, may have been bigger, but it involved pumping surface water, not groundwater.)
White Pine County (pop. 10,000), whose seat is Ely (pop 4,250), is 263 miles from Las Vegas (pop.568,000).
The Bureau of Land Management estimates the project will take 38 years for full build out and cost more than $15.45 billion. If completed, it will pump and transport up to 176,655 acre-feet of groundwater a year to Las Vegas from five valleys in eastern Nevada: Delamar, Dry Lake, Spring, Snake and Cave Valleys.
The groups say the groundwater model the government relied on for the final environmental impact survey and the record of decision shows that the project will “have devastating hydrological, biological, and socioeconomic impacts across vast areas of eastern Nevada and western Utah. The potential economic, social and environmental effects of this massive and unprecedented groundwater mining and export project are therefore of great local, state, regional and national significance, and have been the subject of widespread and intense controversy since the project was first proposed in 1989.”
In its lawsuit, the Center for Biological Diversity claims the project will cause indirect harm to 130,000 acres of wildlife habitat, including meadows and wetlands; could cause several hundred springs to dry up; and might kill off several threatened species, including as the endangered sage grouse.
White Pine County, on the border with Utah and Arizona, has a total area of 8,897 square miles, of which only 21 square miles (0.18 percent) are water. The rest of the county is dominated by pine forests, several designated wilderness areas, and the Great Basin National Park.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority – five of whose seven members are in the Las Vegas metro area – applied for a right-of-way permit for the project in August 2004, claiming that the groundwater in the valleys would help it to counteract the impacts of drought and meet its long-term water needs.
The Las Vegas metropolitan area, with its lush golf courses and many fountains, has been one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation for two decades.
In 2005 later the Bureau started the scoping process required under NEPA; it released a draft environmental impact survey in June 2011.
Hundreds of letters from Nevada residents, government agencies, Native American tribes and environmental groups were sent during the public comment period. Among them were letters from the Army Corps of Engineers, which said the project would have severe long-term impacts to water resources and called for additional analysis of the project’s effects on wetlands; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which expressed concern about the severity and scope of the impacts to water quality, agriculture and the biological resources.
The Bureau published the final impact survey in August 2012 and said that it preferred alternative F, which called for the 263-mile pipeline.
Among other things, the Bureau noted that Measure F will destroy around 10,681 acres of shrub and forest lands; reduce desert tortoise and sage grouse habitat by more than 2,000 acres; require construction of more than 4,000 acres of power lines, well pads and access roads; displace big game populations; and reduce the depth and water flow of rivers, springs and lakes in the project area.
Heavy pumping of groundwater also is known to cause subsidence, in which the ground sinks into holes once filled by water. Houses have fallen into sinkholes in Florida, sections of highways in Arizona.
Despite the anticipated impacts, the Bureau signed a record of decision approving the project in December 2012. It issued Southern Nevada Water Authority a perpetual right-of-way that includes the right to build 251 miles of power lines, three pump stations, six electrical substations, several regulation and water pressure tanks, a water treatment facility and a “buried water storage reservoir,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity’s complaint.
The White Pine plaintiffs say the final impact survey and record of decision are inherently defective and violate NEPA because the Bureau used a tiered analysis of the project. Instead of analyzing it as a whole, they say, the Bureau conducted site-specific analysis of pipeline construction and deferred similar analysis for groundwater pumping wells, allowing it to “avoid meaningful analysis of those impacts [of groundwater pumping to the surrounding environment] while approving the project as a whole.”
The dozen plaintiffs in the White Pine lawsuit also took issue with the decision to limit the analysis of impacts to a 200-year time period, which they said was “irrational” given the fact that the impacts to the groundwater system would be so catastrophic it will take thousands of years for it to recover, if it ever can.
The survey did not identify impacts to Native American culture, the groups say. Among other things, the project will destroy sacred sites; harm historical tribal water resources and encroach on tribal water rights; destroy cultural resources; and interfere with the practice of their religion, which is “closely tied to the land and water.”
The project experienced a setback in December 2013, when a Nevada state court invalidated several of Southern Nevada Water Authority’s groundwater permits for the project in, White Pine County et al. v. Jason King, P.E., Nevada State Engineer, et al.
The court found that the state engineer had arbitrarily granted the Authority access to more water than the valleys contained, which was unfair to the public and to future generations.
The court also found that the mitigation plan for the project was inadequate. It ordered the Authority to prepare a new one that included “objective standards or thresholds for determining when an environmental impact is unreasonable,” and additional analyses of the water available from each valley.
Since most of the Authority’s water rights were vacated, and it may not be able to get them again, the environmental impact survey and record of decision are based on invalid information and “must be reexamined,” the White Pines plaintiffs say.
The Center for Biological Diversity agreed. It says it sent the Bureau a letter telling it to withdraw its record of decision for the project and to prepare another environmental study that takes into account the problems identified by the White Pine court.
But the Bureau did not respond to the letter, and has not changed anything about the project in light of the White Pine decision, the group claims.
Emails to the Bureau of Land Management seeking comment were not returned.
The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the Bureau violated NEPA by authorizing the project and refusing to prepare a supplemental impact survey.
They ask that the record of decision and right-of-way permit be vacated until another federal impact study can be done that complies with NEPA and the Federal Land Policy Management Act.
The Center for Biological Diversity is represented by Julie Cavanaugh-Bill of Elko.
White Pine County District Attorney Kelly C. Brown represents the White Pine plaintiffs.
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