ELY, Nev. -- Environmentalists, ranchers, tribes and religious leaders banded together again Friday to make their latest pitch in state court to scuttle a 263-mile pipeline plan to carry billions of water to Las Vegas from rural counties along the Nevada-Utah line.
The coalition that includes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Nation wants White Pine County District Senior Judge Robert Estes to overturn the state engineer's approval of water rights that would allow the Southern Nevada Water Authority to pump up to 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from four rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties.
The opponents' lawyers made both scientific and spiritual arguments on Thursday in urging White Pine County District Senior Judge Robert Estes to block the pipeline that Las Vegas officials say is needed to reduce the thirsty desert city's dependence on the drought-prone Colorado River.
Earlier this week, the critics who were continuing their oral arguments on Friday characterized the pumping as "illegal groundwater mining." They said it would take centuries after the pumping ceases before the basins would return to equilibrium.
"There isn't the amount of water available to export without devastating effects upon senior water rights holders, the environment and the communities in the region," said Simeon Herskovits, who represents White Pine County, the Great Basin Water Network and more than 350 additional plaintiffs in Nevada and Utah.
Paul Hejmanowski, a Las Vegas attorney representing the Mormon church and its large cattle ranch in Spring Valley, said at the hearing on Thursday the water authority failed to present enough evidence to prove it can afford the project or that it can be built without destroying the environment, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
"A declaration of good intentions is all it is. There is no proof that it can do anything to avert disaster," he said.
An acre-foot is the volume of water needed to cover an acre of land with water 12 inches deep -- about 326,000 gallons. The annual pumping of 84,000 acre feet as planned by SWNA would provide enough water for more than 160,000 homes, the agency says.
Scott Williams, a lawyer for the Confederated Tribes of Goshute Reservation, said the people who live on the high desert range in eastern Nevada and western Utah "understand the concepts of limits."
"We aren't asking for water for swimming pools and golf courses. We want to live here," he said, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. "The Indians who have lived here since time immemorial and the ranchers who came later have conformed their lives to what is available."
The Southern Nevada Water Authority argues the pipeline is the most efficient and effective way to ward off predicted water shortages in the coming decades.
Lake Mead, which provides the Las Vegas area with 90 percent of its water, dropped 140 feet from 2000 to 2011, SNWA lawyer Paul Taggart said.
"This project is critical to Nevada, and to Southern Nevada specifically," Taggart said Thursday
"Two million people in southern Nevada rely on the Colorado River for water, and that supply is no longer a reliable source," he said. "We cannot expect this situation will get any better. Las Vegas is doing what most cities have to do, and that's bring water from somewhere else."
Both sides agree Estes' ruling won't be the last word on the pipeline project.
In 2009, the same court in Ely overturned the state engineer's ruling awarding the water authority water rights in three of the four valleys, saying the engineer had "abused his discretion" and the groundwater in question was already appropriated.
A previous ruling by the state engineer granting the water authority water rights in Spring Valley was invalidated in 2010 by the Nevada Supreme Court in a separate case brought by the Great Basin Water Network.