Nevada groundwater order could help save endangered fish

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Conservationists say Nevada's unprecedented interpretation of state water laws to restrict groundwater pumping for development in the desert northeast of Las Vegas could help prevent the extinction of a tiny endangered fish.

The order that the state engineer issued this week in a decades-old legal battle is expected to curtail development across 1,500 square miles (3,885 square kilometers) that share the same groundwater supply in the driest state in the nation — an area equal to three-fourths of Delaware.

“It’s a really big deal,” said Patrick Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has been fighting for 15 years to protect the Moapa dace, a finger-length fish dependent on springs fed by the underground aquifer.

It could also be the “death knell,” he said, for a sprawling, master-planned community 60 miles (96 kilometers) from Las Vegas. Coyote Springs' original investors included Harvey Whittemore, a renowned Nevada lobbyist and developer who later was imprisoned 21 months for funneling illegal campaign contributions to then-Sen. Harry Reid. Reid said he was unaware of the scheme and was not accused of wrongdoing.

“Greedy real estate developers have no business building subdivisions in the middle of the desert and now they have no water to do it with,” Donnelly said.

For the first time, State Engineer Tim Wilson's order formally combines six water basins and part of another into just one — all subject to the same regulations.

The order “recognizes the close interconnection among the various sources of groundwater and surface water and the headwaters of the Muddy River,” Wilson said.

He pointed to significant housing and business growth in recent decades, with "numerous new proposals for expanded residential and commercial development placing a significant strain on the area’s limited water resources.”

Donnelly said the order is especially significant because it also recognizes the state's obligation to comply with the Endangered Species Act while regulating groundwater pumping. The Moapa dace was declared endangered in 1967.

His group tried for years to convince the state that the situation was similar to a 1997 case when a U.S. appeals court upheld an injunction prohibiting Massachusetts from issuing commercial fishing licenses that could lead to harming five endangered whale species.

The new order references that case in acknowledging that Nevada must comply with the act even it’s not the entity causing harm.

Wilson said granting groundwater pumping permits that result in reduced spring flows would expose the state engineer and the state of Nevada to liability under the Endangered Species Act.

The order limits annual pumping across the region to 8,000 acre-feet. The center argues it should be half that, and plans to press that case. Wilson said pumping could be restricted further if new scientific evidence emerges.

Coyote Springs' developers began applying for water rights in 1998 for the project that once envisioned more than 150,000 homes and businesses across 62 square miles (160 km). The plan envisioned needing tens of thousands of acre feet of water annually. An acre foot is enough water to cover an acre of land, about the size of a football field, one foot deep.

Coyote Springs Investment group argued there are many underground faults and structural elements that control groundwater movement and that water transfers should be made on a case-by-case basis.

It had planned to tap water from a massive planned pipeline project to transport billions of gallons from near the Nevada-Utah line to the Las Vegas area. Last month the Southern Nevada Water Authority abandoned the pipeline project it had begun in the early 1990s.

Donnelly said Coyote Springs' only alternative was to expand pumping from the Lower White River basin.

“Now, neither is an option,” he said. “It’s impossible to see how that project moves forward."

Coyote Springs Investment said in 2018 it had spent about $200 million on the project and that denying water applications would kill it.

Emilia Cargill, chief operating officer and vice president for Wingfield Nevada Group and Coyote Springs Nevada, declined to say whether it would appeal.

The order is “a complex and lengthy report," she said in an email. “We are reviewing it and evaluating our position and have no further comments at this time."