On Thursday, Nevada's state engineer approved allowing the Southern Nevada Water Authority to claim nearly 84,000 acre feet a year from valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties.
The engineer dismissed claims that taking the water for the Las Vegas Valley would stunt development of the valleys or that Vegas was plenty big enough as it is.
King ruled that Spring Valley, Dry Lake Valley, Cave Valley and Delamar Valley could all supply the water sought by the authority in a decision issued on Thursday afternoon.
Spring Valley located over the mountains east of Ely will be the largest source of water, with up to 38,000 acre feet being pumped in the next year.
The authority will have to pump Spring Creek Valley for 16 years before it's allowed to take the full amount of 61,127 acre feet annually.
The state engineer rejected arguments that Las Vegas was big enough and further growth was not in the city's or Clark County's best interest.
"The state engineer finds that decisions as to growth control are the responsibility of other branches of government and dismisses this protest claim," the ruling said.
The news drew a swift response from pipeline opponents, who called the ruling "excessive and ill-considered."
Simeon Herskovits, attorney for the pipeline opponents, said the ruling will be attacked in state courts.
"We believe that the State Engineer has ignored or dismissed compelling hydrological evidence that we and other protestants submitted - evidence that clearly showed that there is no unappropriated water available in Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar Valleys. Pumping the granted water rights from Spring Valley would be unsustainable, environmentally destructive and illegal groundwater mining," said Susan Lynn, coordinator of the Great Basin Water Network. "We will consider our options carefully but this ruling will not go without challenge."
"Pumping and exporting 12 billion gallons of groundwater annually from Spring Valley will dry up springs and harm existing water rights both in Spring Valley and down-gradient in Snake Valley, into which the groundwater flows," said opponent Abigail Johnson. "The amount of pumping this decision allows would lower the groundwater table by up to 200 feet, and equilibrium in the water table will not reached for centuries, with strong likelihood of irreparably harming Nevada's only national park."
Tom Myers, a hydrologist who has studied the Great Basin in detail, predicted that it would not be possible for the authority to pump the billions of gallons annually from the well locations specified by the water agency. That means SNWA will have to "file countless change applications to drill additional wells," he said.
Las Vegan Launce Rake noted that the authority has said repeatedly that they won't proceed with the pipeline project until they absolutely must have water for use in Las Vegas, which could be decades in the future.
"This begs the question of whether authrority has fully established a need for this water, and whether they have the ability to finance this enormously expensive project," Rake said.
"My biggest concern is that this will be an incentive to further degrade Las Vegas' already struggling water conservation programs in an effort to boost water use and justify the project," he said. "We can't afford the pipeline, fiscally or environmentally."
A businesswoman in the Snake Valley, near Great Basin National Park, agreed.
"Holding on to these water rights for 25 to 50 years without putting them to beneficial use not only flouts the prohibition against speculation in Nevada water law, but it unfairly inhibits opportunities for future growth and development in the affected basins in Lincoln and White Pine Counties," said Denys Koyle, Baker businesswoman.
And Native Americans who would be affected by pumping also were concerned with the ruling.
"The ruling brushes aside the need to protect the public trust, ignoring the negative effects of excessive pumping upon Great Basin National Park, tribal sacred and cultural sites, threatened and endangered species, and national wildlife refuges and wetlands," tribal member Delaine Spilsbury stated.
"Great Basin National Park, which adjoins Spring Valley, faces great peril with the decision to ultimately pump over 61,000 acre feet each year," said Lynn Davis, Nevada Field Office Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. The national park's historic and unusual caves are threatened because they are hydrologically linked to Spring Valley's groundwater, according to Davis.
"It is especially heart-breaking that we learned of this decision on World Water Day, a day that is supposed to be about human needs and the environment," said Ann Brauer of Indian Springs. "Instead, this decision, if it stands, gives a green light to SNWA to defoliate the Great Basin, destroy Native American communities, dismantle conservation programs, plant water-hungry turf, encourage unneeded development and stick the ratepayers of Clark County with a $15 billion bill."