CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) -- Southern Nevada Water Authority won approval Thursday from Nevada's state engineer to pump up to 84,000 acre-feet of water from rural areas along the Nevada-Utah line to quench the thirst of the Las Vegas Valley.
State Engineer Jason King issued four separate rulings, one each for Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys.
The rulings were immediately hailed by water agency officials as the lifeblood drought-prone Las Vegas needs to ensure economic vitality, while critics said it would ensure economic and environmental doom to the rural areas.
"Sound science simply does not support the grant of anywhere near these amounts of water rights," said Simeon Herskovits with Advocates for Community & Environment and a lawyer for Great Basin Water Network.
Besides the environmental destruction to the high-desert valleys, Herskovits said the ruling "threatens to gut rural communities throughout the region that are dependent on the existing agricultural economy and recreational tourism."
Steve Erickson, also with the water network, said the group expects a lawsuit will be filed.
The permits approved are less than the 126,000 acre-feet the water authority sought in its original water right applications in the four valleys. The agency later reduced its request to about 105,000 acre-feet.
An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land with water 1 foot deep. The amount granted would fill railroad tanker cars for a train stretching 11,000 miles -- or nearly halfway around the Earth at the equator, said Colleen Dwyer, spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Reclamation in Boulder City.
J.C. Davis, spokesman for the water authority, said it could provide enough water for up to 168,000 average southern Nevada homes per year.
"We think it's critical that southern Nevada has protection against drought on the Colorado River and certainty for its water future," Davis said.
The permits will increase by more than 25 percent the amount of water available to the Las Vegas area per year.
But the water won't be flowing to Nevada's largest city anytime soon.
The rulings set out a "staged" implementation over several years, and also require two years of biological and groundwater flow monitoring, as well as mitigation and management programs to be in place for each water basin before any water is exported.
They also assume the authority's 300-mile, $3.5 billion pipeline, is built, though the project has yet to receive required permits from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Critics, including people in rural counties in Nevada and Utah, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and conservationists argued that tapping the groundwater would result in economic and environmental catastrophe.
King granted 15 separate permits for SNWA to pump a combined 61,127 acre-feet annually, over time, from Spring Valley. The first stage would allow 38,000 acre-feet over eight years, followed by an additional 12,000 acre-feet over eight years depending on monitoring. The full amount may be granted after that.
For the other valleys, King granted annual water withdrawals of 5,235 acre-feet in Cave Valley; 11,584 acre-feet in Dry Lake Valley; and 6,042 acre-feet in Delamar Valley.
The valleys are mostly located in White Pine and Lincoln counties, scenic sparsely populated areas that boast towering mountain ranges surrounded by lush irrigated fields.
SNWA was granted permits for the rural water rights once before, but in 2010 the Nevada Supreme Court sent the matter back for a new round of hearings. The court ruled the state engineer failed to act on the water authority's applications in a timely manner. Many of those were filed decades ago, and the court said people who were not part of the original case but have a stake in the outcome should be allowed to participate in the proceedings.
The rulings came after a six-week hearing was held last fall. In all, 84 witnesses testified resulting in more than 6,500 pages of testimony. More than 800 exhibits were presented and more than 23,000 public comments were submitted.
"Under their data, every single spring in Spring Valley will go dry," Paul Hejmanowski, a Las Vegas lawyer representing the Mormon Church, said at the time. The church owns the sprawling Cleveland Ranch in Nevada's White Pine County.
Pat Mulroy, general manager of the water authority, testified during the hearings that the agency was only seeking the right to pump the amount of water that replenishes the aquifers each year from runoff and snowmelt.
Southern Nevada, the state's population hub, is home to 2 million people and attracts 40 million visitors annually.
Most of the region's water comes from the overtapped Colorado River, a source shared by seven western states and Mexico.
"There are no easy solutions left on the Colorado River," Mulroy said.
Associated Press writers Ken Ritter, Michelle Rindels, Cristina Silva and Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas and Josh Loftin and Paul Foy in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.