Last month, the Nevada State Engineer rejected Southern Nevada Water Authority’s (SNWA) proposed pipeline to divert water from Eastern Nevada after multiple state and federal courts have ruled against SNWA. Today, the SNWA board voted unanimously to approve a legal appeal in a last-ditch effort to keep its pipeline plan alive. And yet, a surprising announcement of opposition from a key Clark County official suggests the pipeline may finally be losing political steam in its own home base.
Move to appeal
SNWA’s board held a special meeting today to decide whether or not to appeal the (court-ordered) State Engineer’s decision. Considering SNWA leaders have already been sounding the alarms on last month’s decision (and the court order that compelled it), the decision to appeal was probably already made long ago.
Never mind that SNWA’s odds of winning this legal fight have dwindled considerably over the past decade. This is their last chance at getting the pipeline off the ground (or rather, into the groundwater). If they don’t try (again) now, it may just never happen.
A word on Sisolak’s big announcement
Perhaps the legal fight has become even more important to SNWA as they continue to bleed political juice. Once upon a time, SNWA could count on politicians on both sides of the aisle to give them what they wanted. After all, there’s a reason why former SNWA General Manager Pat Mulroy was called “the Las Vegas water czar” during her time in charge.
That dynamic has changed in recent years, beginning with SNWA’s controversial decision to raise water rates in 2012. The public backlash encouraged state legislators to consider legislation to rein them in the following year. Though that ultimately resulted in no major change in laws, it marked a sea change in elected officials pushing back against SNWA power plays and asking more questions about the way they govern our water infrastructure.
We may now be seeing the biggest shift yet with Clark County Commissioner and Gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak (D) announcing this week that he opposes construction of the pipeline, lamenting, “I thought it was an ill-conceived plan in the beginning and it’s an ill-conceived plan today.” Though Sisolak has long expressed skepticism about the proposed pipeline, it’s nonetheless eye-popping to see one of the major-party nominees (with perhaps at least a 50% chance of becoming Nevada’s next Governor) defying the once seemingly omnipotent agency that’s played a major role in the growth of Sisolak’s home turf of the Las Vegas Valley.
When we look at the fine print, it’s easier to notice the problems with this proposed pipeline. It would likely drain “fossil water” from Eastern Nevada basins that can’t be replaced by rain. Just over the past decade, the estimated cost has ballooned to just over $15 billion. And with cheaper conservation options available, one can’t help but wonder why SNWA has been so insistent in keeping this pipeline on the table.
But until very recently, SNWA has enjoyed a solid base of support here in the Las Vegas Valley to do as it pleased. And considering how Southern Nevada is still fighting for a more equitable distribution of state funds for public infrastructure, SNWA has been able to spin the pipeline as “Las Vegas finally getting its fair share” of water.
And yet, this might finally be changing. Even with the SNWA board’s unanimous vote to move ahead on the appeal, this pipeline project’s days may still be numbered. It’s yet to be determined how pipeline construction would be paid for, and it’s yet to be determined whether SNWA can find a judge who’s willing to buy their argument in court. But at least for now, the saga continues (even if we’re starting to see the light at the end of this pipeline).
Cover photo by Matt Affolter, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia.