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Power and water: Yes to clean energy, no to dirty water

The first week of April is shaping up to be a pretty happy one for treehuggers in this part of the country. Two items of significant environmental import dropped Wednesday.
One is that NV Energy, which supplies most of Nevada’s electricity needs, is signaling that it wants to get out of the coal business through substantial investment in renewable and natural-gas generating plants.
And in neighboring Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert announced that he would not sign an agreement that would permit the Southern Nevada Water Authority to drill, pump and pipe billions of gallons of groundwater from the Snake Valley, an arid agricultural valley shared by Utah and Nevada that was to be SNWA’s anchor in a huge groundwater diversion plan.
Both moves have been long goals of environmental and conservation groups.
NV Energy’s lobbyist and top brass attended a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Labor and Energy Committee Wednesday and told the members that power bills will go up 4 percent more over 20 years than they would without the move, or 1 percent over the next 30 years, if their projections are correct.
Those cost projections include an expectation that the Obama administration and successors would impose a “carbon tax” on coal emissions, lobbyist Pete Ernaut told the Senate committee. And over time, those projections are just guesses.
“You’re going to see years when the rate goes down. You’re going to see years when the increase is very nominal,” Ernaut said. “I’m proud of this plan. … I thought the rate effect would be much greater.”
The biggest increase, which coincides with the cost of building new gas or renewable generating capacity, would be 8.46 percent in 2019, he said.
The cleaner generating capacity comes with some significant positive attributes. Renewable energy is more expensive to establish, but in the long run there’s no cost for solar and wind energy, while coal has to be imported and is expected to get more expensive.
The switch, which would get NV Energy off of coal and make Nevada energy independent by 2019 in the south and in the north (with the coal plants in Valmy, Nev., going offline by 2025), would also reduce carbon emissions into the air by about 17.5 million tons, he said: “This plan represents a significant environmental statement."
Enviros are cautiously optimistic that this move is real and not a bait-and-switch. Paiute leadership in their Moapa community, which is next door to the Reid-Gardner coal plant that the Paiutes have tried to close for years because of fears that the smoke-belching behemoth was affecting their health, said they hoped to see investment in renewable energy in their neighborhood and not a natural gas plant.
“With this legislation, NV Energy unequivocally acknowledges that Nevada wants and needs to leave coal behind. Closing the Reid-Gardner coal plant would clean up Nevada’s air pollution and reduce health risks for thousands of Nevadans,” said Jane Feldman, Sierra Club state Energy Task Force chair. “We strongly support closing that plant and fully cleaning up the site, including the polluted lands, air and water near the Moapa Band of Paiutes’ Moapa River Reservation.”
SNWA General Manager Pat Mulroy has previously threatened to sue the Beehive State, block its ability to use water in Utah’s Lake Powell and/or promised to just go ahead and take the water from Snake Valley in any case.
The agency released a lengthy statement Wednesday, which laid down the SNWA position that Herbert has to allow the pumping:
“We are disappointed that Gov. Herbert has unilaterally chosen not to comply with a Congressional directive to both his state and Nevada. … Yet, despite this overwhelming body of scientific evidence and legally binding safeguards, Gov. Herbert has elected to withdraw from the agreement. In the coming days and weeks, we will evaluate our options to address this unprecedented action.”
The move by Utah’s governor doesn’t stop the groundwater plan, especially since SNWA has Nevada’s (legally contested) approval to pull water from the neighboring, all-Nevada Spring Valley, but it makes it harder to pencil out the estimated $15 billion cost of the project (which includes $7 billion in capital costs and $8 billion in finance charges).
SNWA has said the groundwater is needed to augment Colorado River supplies threatened by increased demand and drought, and to meet future demands from growth in metropolitan Clark County.
 "We're proud of Gov. Herbert's decision to put people before politics in deciding not to grant SNWA their request for groundwater in Snake Valley,” Scot Rutledge, director of the Nevada Conservation League, said from Las Vegas. “If the pipeline project is allowed to go forward, massive environmental degradation in eastern Nevada and skyrocketing water rates for Southern Nevada ratepayers will result."
(Full disclosure: Mr. Rake has worked with several conservation groups that have worked to thwart Mrs. Mulroy’s aquatic ambitions and convince NV Energy to stop burning coal at the Reid-Gardner plant.)