Snake Valley is a place of great beauty,
amazing natural resources, clean air, clear night skies, and little water. Approximately 1,000 people live in Snake Valley, which is the same amount as when European settlers first arrived in this valley over 100 years ago. Why haven't more people moved to such a wonderful spot, especially when urbanization and sprawl are so rampant throughout other parts of the world? The answer is simple: lack of water.
The earliest settlers moved to areas with water, either springfed or streamfed. Only about 5 percent of Snake Valley is private land, with the rest of it public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Nevada Department of Wildlife, and Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration. As technology advanced and electricity eventually reached Snake Valley, pumps were used to remove water from underground. Primarily this groundwater was used for agricultural purposes. Today it could be used for development except for one problem: Southern Nevada.
In 1989, the Las Vegas Valley Water District filed for water applications in several distant basins, including Snake Valley. Many Snake Valley residents protested these applications during the 30-day protest period. Then for 19 years, nothing happened with the applications. The applications blocked other applications put in by people who wanted to develop water in Snake Valley.
In 2004, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), an umbrella group including the Las Vegas Valley Water District, applied to the BLM for a right-of-way to build a pipeline from the basins where they had water applications to the Las Vegas area. In the same year, the Lincoln County Conservation, Recreation, and Development Act was passed, which legislated a pipeline ("water conveyance") in Lincoln County pending National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis. The Act also commissioned a study of water resources that was to later be called the Basin and Range Carbonate Aquifer System (BARCAS) Study. It also stated, "Prior to any transbasin diversion from ground-water basins located within both the State of Nevada and the State of Utah, the State of Nevada and the State of Utah shall reach an agreement regarding the division of water resources of those interstate ground-water flow system(s) from which water will be diverted and used by the project. The agreement shall allow for the maximum sustainable beneficial use of the water resources and protect existing water rights. "
In 2006, the USGS issued its report about the susceptibility of surface-water resources in the Great Basin National Park area to groundwater withdrawals in adjacent valleys. The 2006 Elliott et al. USGS report includes a map showing large areas of both Snake Valley and neighboring Spring Valley would be susceptible to the pumping.
The SNWA pipeline right of way applications were followed by requests to the Nevada State Engineer to rule on whether SNWA could receive water from those applications, and if so, how much. In 2006, the State Engineer held a hearing for Spring Valley, the valley just to the west of Snake Valley. Just before the hearing began, the Department of Interior (BLM, National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs) agreed to drop its protests of the SNWA applications in exchange for a Spring Valley Stipulation Agreement that would provide for a hydrologic and biologic monitoring plan. Even without the Department of Interior, the hearings lasted about three weeks, with testimony about the hydrology, geology, vegetation, wildlife, and economic concerns. In April 2007, the State Engineer issued his Spring Valley ruling, allowing SNWA to pump 40,000 acre-feet per year for the first 10 years, and if no ill effects were seen, 60,000 acre-feet per year thereafter.
In the same year, SNWA won a quiet quest to get double credit for any water it could export from rural Nevada. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation ruled in December 2007 that SNWA could get return flow credits for Nevada groundwater imported from rural Clark, Lincoln, and White Pine counties. Basically this made rural groundwater doubly appealing. Instead of 40,000 acre-feet per year from Spring Valley, SNWA is really counting on 80,000 acre-feet per year. In addition to these water rights, SNWA has bought many of the ranches and their water rights in Spring Valley. According to the SNWA website, they have "acquired approximately 34,000 AFY [acre-feet per year] of surface water rights, 6,000 AFY of groundwater rights and 24,000 AFY of supplemental water rights. SNWA does not intend to export the surface water rights, which will be used to help manage the groundwater basin and support other environmental management activities."
The BARCAS study completed one year of field work in 2005 (an exceedingly wet year with 300% snowpack in the Snake Range), and published their reports online in early 2008. The work was done conjointly by the US Geological Survey (USGS) and the Desert Research Institute (DRI). Among the findings was that much more water moved from basin to basin than previously thought. Coming around the south end of the Snake Range through the carbonate rock was 33,000 acre-feet per year, previously thought to be about 4,000 acre-feet per year. Clearly Snake Valley was not a closed basin, and pumping in other basins could decrease the amount of water in Snake Valley.
The State of Utah also financed studies in order to learn about their water resources along the stateline. Since 2007, the Utah Geological Survey has been developing a groundwater monitoring network in Snake Valley and other nearby areas. They have drilled about 10 wells, analyzed groundwater chemistry, and put pressure transducers to measure water level into several wells. They have an excellent website with maps and links to more information.
The BLM is in charge of completing the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the pipeline right-of-way. They have held scoping for the project despite SNWA's changing maps of potential wellfield locations. The BLM requested additional information from SNWA, and in July 2007 and again in December 2008, SNWA provided a Conceptual Plan of Development that included more details for the pipeline. The BLM is currently working on the draft EIS, slated to be released in spring 2011. A public comment period will follow, and then the BLM will work on the final EIS. A record of decision will have to be signed by the Nevada BLM State Director before the pipeline right-of-way is approved. This process has been delayed repeatedly, and the current schedule sets no firm date for the final document.
In May 2008, SNWA requested that a hearing for Snake Valley be held. On July 15, 2008, the Nevada State Engineer held a pre-hearing. He decided that the full hearing would begin September 28, 2009. On Friday, March 27, 2009, the Department of Interior agencies announced they would not stipulate for Snake Valley and were preparing to go to hearing. On Monday, March 30, 2009, SNWA sent a letter to the Nevada State Engineer asking for the hearing to be delayed an entire year. On Friday, April 24, 2009, The Nevada State Engineer announced in Interim Order Number Three that there would be a two-year delay, with the hearing scheduled for October/November 2011.
In August 2009, a draft Snake Valley agreement between the states of Utah and Nevada was issued. Among many points, the draft agreement stated the water in the valley was split in half between the states, even though the majority of the land is in Utah; the hearing date with the Nevada State Engineer would be postponed until 2019; and a set of protections was outlined for current water rights holders. This agreement has not been signed to date, largely due to court decisions regarding water hearings.
The Great Basin Water Network (GBWN) filed suit in 2006 against the Nevada State Engineer and the Southern Nevada Water Authority in a due process case. GBWN argued that holding hearings for Spring, Dry Lake, Delamar, and Cave valleys nearly 20 years after the applications and protest periods without allowing additional protests was unconstitutional. In January 2010, the Nevada Supreme Court agreed and remanded the decision back to the district court. The Nevada State Engineer and Southern Nevada Water Authority then filed documents with the Nevada Supreme Court asking for clarification in the decision, and this came in June 2010, with a new opinion on Great Basin Water Network v. Nevada State Engineer and Southern Nevada Water Engineer. The Nevada State Engineer's office interpreted the ruling. Hearings on these valleys were held September through November, 2011. The State Engineer's ruling was released on March 22, 2012. The Snake Valley hearing has been postponed indefinitely. The State Engineer's ruling was appealed, with a scheduled court hearing in June 2013.
The BLM issued the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project in June 2011. The Final EIS was subsequently released and a Record of Decision were issued in December 2012.
To see the special places of Snake Valley that could be impacted by massive groundwater pumping, take the water tour.