Editorial: Bill language should not allow water grab

A growing number of public and private entities are joining a concerted effort to make sure a bill pending before Congress does not inadvertently create a means for Clark County to tap rural groundwater, though Clark County officials protest that is not the intent of the proposal.

According to Great Basin Water Network (GBWN) — a coalition of conservationists, rural officials, tribes and agricultural interests — there are fears that the wording in the proposed Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act, whether intentional or not, could skirt a federal judge’s ruling blocking a proposed 300-mile right-of-way for a network of water pipelines.

The bulk of the bill, not yet introduced in Congress, proposes freeing up more than 40,000 acres of public land in Clark County for economic development, but two sections at the end of the 21-page bill call for the Interior Department to give the Southern Nevada Water Authority rights-of-way for an electric power line that “shall be subject only to the terms, conditions and stipulations identified in the existing rights-of-way, and shall not be subject to further administrative or judicial review. The right-of-way shall be granted in perpetuity and shall not require the payment of rental fees.” Opponents fear that a right-of-way for a power line could just as easily be used for pipelines.

Two years ago a federal judge ruled that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) could grant the water agency right-of-way for its network of pipelines to take groundwater beneath White Pine, Lincoln and Nye counties, but first it had to come up with plans to mitigate the potential loss of wildlife habitat due to a draw down of the water table, as is required by the CleanWater Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

That might prove to be impossible, since federal studies show the interconnected aquifers are already at equilibrium — meaning water that is now being drawn from the aquifers is being replaced gallon for gallon annually with no leeway for additional withdrawal. The water agency proposes to withdraw 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year. The project is projected to cost more than $15 billion and could triple water rates in Clark County.

This past week more than a dozen entities joined in opposition to Congress approving the right-of-way proposal. These include several Nevada and Utah counties, three Indian tribes and a number of environmental groups.

“What Clark County is proposing is a pro-pipeline bill,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the GBWN. “Elected officials, attorneys, and non-profit organizations that span Nevada, Utah and the region all agree: The SNWA wants the congressional delegation to carry its water by surreptitiously advancing a project that has consistently lost in federal and state courts. The Nevada delegation deserves better than sneaky end-runs masked as technicalities. For now, the name of the bill should be the Great Basin Water Grab Act of 2019.”

A resolution passed by the Duckwater Shosone Tribe warned, “Science has shown that the pipeline would ultimately destroy Bashsahwahbee, killing off Swamp Cedars and drying up the Sacred Water Valley’s springs and aquifers that plant and wildlife currently depend upon.”

A spokesman for the water authority told the Las Vegas newspapers there is no intention to use the right-of-way for anything other than power lines. Though he thought the language was sufficiently clear, he said it has been modified recently. Another official offered that it might be further altered to allay concerns.

Clark County could use the economic development. Changing the language in the bill should satisfy the opposition.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Nevada State Sen. Pete Goicoechea and Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, discuss efforts by Clark County to tap rural groundwater. (Pix by Roger Moellendorf)


6 comments on “Editorial: Bill language should not allow water grab

  1. Bob Coffin says:

    This is a good column but let’s add a couple of important things that are not evident here but which can be easily teased out. If the waters in the proposed basins are “in equilibrium” that is good news…if…that includes the most recent decades where there is less rainfall. If not true then we have to recalculate to be sure. When I served in the Senate we particularly held that the ground water should not be “mined.” Mining water means taking out more than the natural recharge. The Water Authority ranches use a significant amount of water in those basins and the intent was to make sure that we only send an amount of water South that was being used already for surface irrigation. So, if a decision is made to pipe the ranch water South it would not affect the other rights holders and tribal interests over there since this was water already being beneficially used.

    A person new to this eternal fight also needs to know that the water belongs to the State of Nevada. No individual or group “owns” water. Even water that is pumped from privately owned wells must be permitted by the State. A citizen living in another area such as Clark County has the right to apply for the “rights” to use the water and the law should allow those rights to be transferred from citizen to citizen.That is a distinction always conveniently overlooked by those who want to leave the land untouched and the water left where ranchers can use it to grow their beef and other corollary products. There is nothing sacred about that use although it has the romance of the West attached to it. So, let’s get past that ploy to cut out Clark County citizens who have the right to apply for its use and enjoyment.

    I have spent a lot of time in Eastern Nevada and it is beautiful, almost enchanting country because it has been overlooked by tourists who usually think of Western Nevada with its high country lakes and forests. Think Tahoe
    So, this is worth preserving forever and that is why preventing mining of the water is of paramount importance. No matter how much developers in Clark County want that water we should not allow its transfer if it will affect Eastern Nevada in a permanent way. But, let’s not get panicked if Clark wants to transfer its existing rights to the South.

    This is where the pursuit of the truth about how much water is recharging now and how important continued research must be conducted until we know as much as possible, how much can be transferred to other basins. This means more study using all the science available to study the geology and the available means of looking to the past as a guide to the future. Tree ring and rock analysis going back thousands of years can be done but has not been deep enough to satisfy me, yet. The state, even interested Southern Nevada parties, should finance this research and keep studying it even aftrr rights are transferred because those rights might be found to not stand the test of time. But, the shock of a future mandated reduction cannot be overlooked as a possibility in the future and ought to be clearly disclosed to new water users should that alarm need to be sounded.

    I served on the Water Authority board for eight years and our staff needs to always be on the alert fot the pressure put on today’s elected officials to make sure that promises to get all the water do not create that potential reduction by all users and not just the new ones. Short term favors to special interests might have to be reversed by future leaders so we need to keep these promises under constant inspection and review.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Kudos to you Bob. A well stated post.

    A question though:

    What water rights does Nevada have to water existing on Federal Land?

  3. Steve says:

    It’s time. We should be burying all power lines. Even though NV doers not have much underbrush to worry about, all new transmission should be underground.
    It would keep the wires at a constant temperature, act like a heat sink and end up with minimal to no impact on the environment.
    Bury the wire. Leave the water where it is.

  4. […] Source: Editorial: Bill language should not allow water grab […]

  5. Rincon says:

    Water should be sold just like oil, gas, and other natural resources.

  6. According to an article posted early Saturday morning on the Sun’s website, but apparently not deemed worthy of making the print version, Clark County has revised sections of its proposed land bill to remove any possibility of power line rights-of-way being used for its proposed water pipeline to bring groundwater from Eastern Nevada counties.

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