SALT LAKE CITY -- Gov. Gary Herbert's wholesale rejection of a landmark water-sharing agreement with Nevada is bringing criticism from both sides.
His advisers say he snubbed a deal that titled heavily in Utah's favor. The Utah Water Development Commission is calling on Herbert to reopen talks that could keep haphazard groundwater withdrawals from turning one of the country's driest places, Snake Valley, into a dustbowl.
Utah officials haven't heard from Nevada since Herbert rejected the pact April 3, and they are waiting for its next move, said Mike Mower, Herbert's deputy for community outreach.
Nevada is feeling jilted.
"This has been an absolute slap in the face to the state of Nevada," Pat Mulroy, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said Wednesday in a phone interview.
"Why would any state sit down and spend four years negotiating with Utah?" Mulroy asked. "Their credibility has been completely undermined."
Utah officials fear Nevada might claim all of the groundwater that flows from the Great Basin National Park to Snake Valley, which straddles both states - 60 percent of the valley is on Utah's side, where ranchers depend heavily on an ice-age aquifer to grow crops.
The pact could have allowed Las Vegas to pump massive amounts of Snake Valley's groundwater only if enough surplus water is available, a slim prospect, said Warren H. Peterson, one of three outside lawyers who urged Herbert to sign the pact. It called for no pumping for the first 10 years for baseline environmental studies.
Legislators and water experts on the Utah Water Development Commission voted Tuesday to urge Herbert to reopen talks. They believe his decision was unwise. Herbert said he was acting on opposition from local officials and ranchers.
"You can be assured this issue is a major point on the governor's radar," Ally Isom, his deputy chief of staff, said Wednesday. "We will do everything we can to protect Utah's water, environment and way of life."
Herbert is calling for a series of community forums this summer on water development. He was in New Orleans on Thursday at a convention of the Republican Governors Association.
In November, three experts dubbed the "wise men" filed a report with Herbert warning that "in the absence of these agreements, Nevada, because of its more pressing need for water, may simply appropriate the remaining available water in the Snake Valley groundwater system to the exclusion of Utah's needs for future water supplies."
Mulroy, however, said a congressional act keeps Nevada from pumping groundwater in Snake Valley without Utah's consent. Peterson said Nevada, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's help, could amend the law to shut Utah out.
"We're getting ready to see a door closed here," Peterson told fellow members of Utah's water-development commission. "I just can't see a downside" to the water pact.