Water for wildlife in Nevada including wild horses (Photo © Anne Novak, all rights reserved.)
Pipeline Would Dry Up Springs and Wetlands, Hurt Fish, Sage Grouse, Pronghorn and Other Species
LAS VEGAS— The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court today to halt a right-of-way needed for the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s long-proposed pipeline (commonly known as the “Groundwater Development Project”). If allowed to proceed, the pipeline would siphon more than 27.3 billion gallons of groundwater each year from the desert of eastern Nevada and pump it more than 260 miles to the Las Vegas Valley. The controversial $15.5 billion project would have profound effects on people, wildlife and Nevada’s natural heritage.
“Enough is enough,” said Rob Mrowka, a Nevada-based senior scientist with the Center. “Despite hundreds of pages detailing the unthinkable harm that would be caused by this project, tens of thousands of people signing petitions against it, and setbacks in state district and supreme courts, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and BLM have closed their ears to reason, logic and plain common sense. They need to drop this disastrous water grab.”
The Groundwater Development Project would, by the authority’s own admission, dry up or “adversely affect” more than 5,500 acres of meadows, more than 200 springs, 33 miles of trout streams, and 130,600 acres of sagebrush habitat for sage grouse, mule deer, elk and pronghorn as water tables plunge by 200 feet.
The greater sage grouse is an upland bird species, iconic and completely dependent on sagebrush habitat for its existence; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the bird to warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2010. Its numbers have plummeted by more than 50 percent in recent decades due to fragmentation and loss of habitat (more of which would occur with the Southern Nevada groundwater pumping project). The Fish and Wildlife Service must make a decision on listing the bird for protections under the Endangered Species Act by 2015 under a settlement agreement with the Center.
At least 25 species of Great Basin springsnails would also be pushed toward extinction, and 14 species of desert fish would be hurt, including the Moapa dace and White River springfish. Frogs and toads would fare little better, with four species severely threatened by the dewatering.
In the lawsuit the Center argues that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Policy Act and Federal Land Policy and Management Act in approving the groundwater development project.
“These laws exist because Americans care about their public lands,” said Mrowka. “Congress passed these laws to make sure our public lands are managed on the basis of multiple-use, to protect irreplaceable cultural and natural resources for current and future generations. They exist so that the needs of future generations of Americans can be taken into account — not just short-term economic growth and greed.”
The suit asserts the agencies failed to analyze impacts from permanently and irreversibly impairing the water springs, groundwater wetlands and wildlife habitat in the project area; failed to consider climate change; failed to adequately disclose how the project would comply with requirements of the Clean Water Act; and failed to comply with the Resource Management Plan in effect for the area.
Also raised in the lawsuit is the fact that the Water Authority has no rights to water to put into the proposed pipeline. On Dec. 10, 2013, the 7th Judicial District Court of Nevada issued a decision — which had been sought by the Center and allies in the Great Basin Water Network — that stripped the Authority of 83,988 acre-feet per year of groundwater due to severe deficiencies in the analysis that supported the original award of rights. The judge called the water-grab plan “likely the largest interbasin transfer of water in U.S. history.”
The Center has asked the court to order the BLM to prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement that addresses the flawed analysis, as well as to enjoin the agency from implementing any part of the project until it can be judged to be in full compliance with the law.
On Dec. 19, 2013, the Center notified the BLM that due to the decision by the district court, the agency must withdraw its “record of decision” for the groundwater development project and reevaluate the proposed project and its purpose and need. Under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, an applicant for a right-of-way for a pipeline must have a valid existing right established under state law, which the Authority in this case does not. The BLM has not responded to the Center’s letter.
The Center has actively opposed this water grab since 2006. In 2010 and 2011 it filed hundreds of formal protests with the Nevada state engineer opposing the award of water rights to the Water Authority; it was these rights that were stripped by the state district court.
The Center is a member of the Great Basin Water Network, formed in 2004, a broad coalition of government agencies, American Indian tribes, organizations and individuals opposed to this groundwater development project of whose board Rob Mrowka is a member. The Water Network will also file suit against the pipeline right-of-way, as may other individual entities in the Network.
The groundwater development project is projected to cost over $15.5 billion when financing costs are included. The Network is not opposed to water for southern Nevada but instead of a short-term pipeline proposes water be gained from increased indoor and outdoor conservation, reasonable limits to growth, re-evaluating how the Colorado River is managed and used, and long-term solar-powered desalinization of Pacific Ocean water.
The Center is represented by Marc Fink, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, and local counsel, Julie Cavanaugh-Bill of Elko, Nevada.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 675,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.