LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Long-fought plans for Las Vegas to pump and pipe drinking water from arid valleys just west of the Utah state line were dealt a severe blow Friday with a ruling from Nevada's top state water official.
State Engineer Jason King denied groundwater rights to the Las Vegas-based Southern Nevada Water Authority in vast rural tracts in Lincoln and White Pine counties, even though applications had been approved three times since 2007.
However, King also said he'll appeal a state judge's order that forced him to hold do-over hearings last year that put him in a position "to upend the historical application of Nevada water law and water rights."
The water authority also promised an appeal with a statement lamenting the "difficulty" King faced complying with what it called District Court Judge Robert Estes's "contradictory" instructions.
"Southern Nevada, which is home to 73 percent of the population in the state, uses less than 5 percent of the state's total available water supply," the statement said. "There is water available in these basins for appropriation, but the state engineer is prevented from doing so by the scope of (Estes') instructions, which impose unprecedented requirements into the science of water appropriation in Nevada."
Estes, from the White Pine County seat of Ely, had rejected as "arbitrary and capricious" King's approval in March 2012 of the pumping plan. The judge ordered the state engineer to recalculate if there really was enough water underground to supply the 250-mile (400-kilometer) pipeline with enough water to serve more than 165,000 homes.
Opponents and environmental groups in Nevada and Utah, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, argued that the sparsely populated Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys would be reduced to dust bowls. The Mormon church has a ranch in Spring Valley.
"The Las Vegas water grab was always nothing more than a speculative play to fuel unfettered and unsustainable growth at the expense of the ecosystems and communities of eastern Nevada," Patrick Donnelly, Nevada chief of the Center for Biological Diversity, said following King's ruling.
Officials in Las Vegas have projected the pump-and-pipeline project could cost billions of dollars, but have said it might become essential if drought keeps shrinking the Lake Mead reservoir on the Colorado River.
Money has not been allocated.
Federal water managers said this week that a drier regional climate coupled with rising demand could prompt cutbacks in water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada by 2020. Lake Mead supplies 90 percent of Las Vegas drinking water.
Water authority chief John Entsminger has in recent years suggested the pipeline might not be immediately needed if water conservation efforts continue to improve, even as Las Vegas, a city of some 2.2 million people and more than 40 million tourists a year, continues to grow.
A key finding in King's 111-page ruling was that the water authority pumping plan would threaten an unusually lush Spring Valley area of meadows and swamp cedar plants designated a "critical environmental concern."
The state engineer also accepted a water authority plan dubbed "3M" for monitoring, management and mitigation. He said it satisfied the judge's order by responding to concerns raised by Utah's Millard and Juab counties.
Attorney Simeon Herskovits, representing the Great Basin Water Network, Indian tribes and White Pine County, called the ruling a positive outcome in the years-long fight against the pipeline plan.
But he said he had concerns about some of King's findings, including the 3M plan.