Herbert pulling back on Snake Valley deal: After hearing from Corroon and others
Hand-delivered letters from elected officials in Salt Lake and Millard counties to Gov. Gary Herbert this week apparently have persuaded him to delay signing a Snake Valley water-sharing agreement between Utah and Nevada.
Earlier this week, the hotly disputed pact appeared ready to go. After a meeting Wednesday of the Snake Valley Aquifer Advisory Council, Herbert spokeswoman Angie Welling said the governor was ready for Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, to sign the document.
"It's just a matter of schedule at this point," Welling said at the time.
On Friday, she said that while Herbert still hopes to sign an agreement, he first wants to address concerns laid out by the Millard County Commission and Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, whose letters asked for a delay pending more scientific study. (Corroon plans to announce next week that he will run against Herbert this year.)
The governor "would rather do it right than do it fast," Welling said, noting that has been Herbert's position all along. "He wants to make sure that, to the extent possible, [the counties'] concerns are alleviated."
That task appears especially complicated because Las Vegas water officials have revealed they don't expect to pump Snake Valley until 2050. That disclosure prompted intensified objections from opponents, who see no reason to sign the deal so far in advance.
Welling said Herbert has asked John Harja, director of the Governor's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, to work on counties' concerns.
The counties sent their letters after the Wednesday meeting, asking for studies of how much water is in the aquifer and how pumping it to Las Vegas would affect the Snake Valley and Wasatch Front environments.
Millard County asked that any accord be based on information about the entire Great Salt Lake basin as required by a provision in federal law but that request was sidestepped in a draft agreement between the two states.
Salt Lake County wants scientific information on how the pumping would affect Wasatch Front air quality. Both counties declared that a previous federal hydrologic study lacked solid evidence about how much water is in the aquifer or how to draw down the groundwater sustainably.
Although both counties have raised the same objections repeatedly, as have other opponents, a conservationist welcomed Herbert's caution.
"We have to be pleased the governor is giving this another look. We were concerned he would actually sign it [Friday]," said Steve Erickson, spokesman for the Great Basin Water Network. "We should let the [federal] draft environmental impact studygo forward, which would answer a lot of these questions."
Mark Ward, an attorney representing Millard County, said that, like Salt Lake County, "we want this [agreement] to be based on actual evidence."
Penny Woods, who oversees the Bureau of Land Management's environmental study of the project, said Friday the Southern Nevada Water Authority paid for a statistical hydrologic study that projects 200 years beyond the pipeline's buildout.Those findings won't be divulged until the draft enviromental impact study (EIS) is released .
"There are limitations to models," Woods said. "What we thought we would do in the EIS is to create an extensive monitoring system."
But a top climate scientist says whatever the study says, it's wrong.
"Any forecast 200 years into the future is bulls---," said Tim Barnett, a physicist and researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. "You just can't do that."
Barnett, along with David Pierce of the Scripps Climate, Atmospheric Science and Physical Oceanography division, shook up Western water managers in 2007 when they predicted an even chance of Lake Mead and Lake Powell drying up by 2021.
While multiple studies have predicted a dire water future for the Southwest, Barnett's statistical study drew much criticism. But Barnett said a more recent study with different parameters, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science , essentially reached the same conclusions as the 2007 findings.
Las Vegas water officials say they need to pump the groundwater to counter dwindling supplies from the Colorado River. Barnett argues the climate conditions that would dry the Colorado also would affect the region surrounding Snake Valley.
Nevada says it would tap a deep aquifer far below the shallow one that sustains the desert environment. But Barnett said such "fossil water" is difficult to quantify and isn't sustainable.
A study of fossil water in a desert community near San Diego showed that as more people moved in, built golf courses and depleted the deep aquifer, it devolved into isolated underground pools. Some people could get water, some couldn't.
"When that [fossil water] is gone, it's gone. The water just turns off," Barnett said. "And it doesn't take 10 years to turn off. It happens pretty fast."
Reached after four years of secret negotiations, the proposed Utah-Nevada agreement calls for splitting 132,000 acre-feet of water the U.S. Geological Survey estimated is available in Snake Valley, with 66,000 acre-feet a year going to each state as long as stringent conditions are met. An acre-foot is roughly 326,000 gallons, enough to cover an acre with a foot of water or supply up to two households for a year.
The proposed deal » requires the states to reassess pumping if it kills vegetation, causes dust storms or diminishes water for those who already have rights. It also pushes back the Southern Nevada Water Authority's pipeline water rights hearing before the Nevada state engineer from next year to 2019, during which time the states would conduct studies seeking to verify the amount of water available.
Proponents » say the 50-50 split is equitable and protects existing water rights. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Mike Styler believe having a deal is better than uncertainty.
Opponents » say the split of unallocated water likely to be available would really be 7-1 in favor of Nevada.