RENO, Nev. (AP) -- A battle over a massive pipeline project to carry billions of gallons of water to Las Vegas from rural counties along the Nevada-Utah line is heading back to court this week.
Senior District Judge Robert Estes will hear oral arguments Thursday and Friday in Ely concerning opponents' challenge of water rights granted to the Southern Nevada Water Authority by Nevada's state engineer, Jason King.
Last year, King granted the water authority permission to pump up to 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from four rural valleys in Lincoln and White Pine counties. An acre-foot is the volume of water needed to cover an acre of land with water 12 inches deep — about 326,000 gallons.
Both sides say they're confident heading into the hearings.
"We are confident that the science, the facts and the law support our case that the state engineer's decisions should be reversed," said attorney Simeon Herskovits, who represents over 350 Nevada and Utah plaintiffs in the hearings. "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."
Plaintiffs include ranchers, farmers, environmentalists, rural local governments, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Nation.
Water authority spokesman J.C. Davis said his agency is confident that Estes will rule in its favor. The water authority serves the desert gambling metropolis that is home to some 2 million people and attracts 40 million visitors annually.
"The process for granting water rights in Nevada is rigorous and has been in place for more than a century and the Nevada state engineer followed that process to the letter here," he told The Ely Times. "We believe the judge's review will verify that the Nevada state engineer acted in accordance with Nevada water law."
Las Vegas officials seek to build the 263-mile pipeline to reduce the city's dependence on the drought-prone Colorado River. The Colorado flows into Lake Mead, southern Nevada's main water source. A study projected moderate to severe water shortages over the next several decades.
Both sides agree Estes' ruling won't be the last word on the pipeline project.
"Unfortunately, continued litigation is almost a foregone conclusion," Davis said. "The fact is, moving through permitting and litigation is far more time-consuming than building the project itself."
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, which is helping to lead the fight against the pipeline project.