Opponents and proponents for the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s groundwater project converged in Ely last Thursday and Friday as oral arguments were heard. Now the waiting game begins. Attorneys representing the SNWA and the State Engineer along with attorneys representing various groups opposing the project made their cases heard last Thursday and Friday in Ely. Senior Judge Robert Estes presided over the hearing.
“This is a good project that we’re going to talk about today,” SNWA attorney Paul Taggart said. “It’s critical for Nevada, specially southern Nevada.’
Taggart argued over the course of the two days that the State Engineer studied large amounts of evidence before making his ruling and that opponents of the groundwater project will be opposed to the project no matter what.
Attorney Simeon Herskovits, who represented White Pine County, the Great Basin Water Network and a host of others, argued that there was sufficient evidence provided that the SNWA can afford the project or that it can build the project without having grave effects on communities in the four affected valleys.
“So you have a process and you have a promise, and that’s really all you have,” Herskovits said. “It’s not an actual safeguard against anything.”
As both sides presented their cases, there was nothing new presented that threw Herskovits off.
“There were no particular surprises in my opinion,” Herskovits said. “The lawyers for SNWA and the State Engineer, I think they stuck with the same kinds of arguments that were more record focused, narrow ideas of the issues that you’d expect from them…Those of us on our side argued more about what the policy underpinning of the statutory law that the State Engineer abides by mean and the issue of interpreting and applying the law.”
Taggart argued that the project is needed in order to ensure future growth and have a backup supply while opponents argue that there is not enough water in the four valleys to draw from to begin with and the environmental effects would be devastating.
“I want people to appreciate that the stakes in this case are extremely high,” Herskovits said after the hearing. “A loss in this case and the approval, building and implementation of this project would pose a grave long-term danger to the well being of White Pine County and its sister Counties. That’s because of the removal of the groundwater resource and the socio-economic impacts it would have locally.”
A ruling in the case won’t be coming anytime soon. Judge Estes said he will begin reviewing the case in August, meaning a ruling will not be coming until late summer or early fall at the earliest.
Numerous local officials attended all or part of the hearing, including County Commissioners Mike Lemich, Richard Howe and Laurie Carson, who were pleased with how the hearing went.
“I think our attorney did a good job,” Lemich said. “He presented a lot of facts and good, strong issues. I just hope it goes our direction.”
GBWN Chairwoman Abby Johnson said she was pleased with the amount of people who attended the hearing because it represented the diversity of the groups who oppose the project and about what was presented.
“I thought it went really well,” Johnson said. “I thought the people focused on the key points and positions. I think that the GBWN and the other petitioners got their points across to the judge. I also felt the judge was very engaged and really listening and trying to absorb all the information.”
Overturning the State Engineer’s ruling is not out of the question. In 2010, the Nevada Supreme Court overturned two rulings that would have given the SNWA nearly 79,000 acre-feet of water in the same four valleys.
Herskovits said he believed Judge Estes remained neutral throughout the proceeding, making it difficult to get a sense of how he may rule. But whatever way he does rule, an appeal is nearly certainly coming.
As all those involved in the case now wait for Judge Estes’ ruling, Herskovits doesn’t have any regrets about the way he presented his case.
“I feel comfortable with the arguments I presented,” Herskovits said. “…generally speaking I think we had an adequate opportunity and I covered the issues that needed to be covered. I just hope it’s persuasive for the judge and we’ll find out eventually.”
While a final resolution is a long ways off, Herskovits said everyone shouldn’t forget what they’ve accomplished so far.
“I think people should understand and appreciate that because of the steadfastness of our Commissioners, the allies they have in non-profit groups and also the farmers and ranchers and business people, they’re still caught up in the review process,” Herskovits said. “All the progress Sun law thought it had made or was initially made was reversed and we’re back in court. The project hasn’t moved forward. The expectation of Sun law in 2005 was that they could get this approved within 2006 and be on the way to building this long before now.”