Newspaper column: Drunk with power, feds coming for our water

There may not be sufficient documentation to prove that Mark Twain ever said, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over,” but Nevada ranchers and farmers are having to fight over water with two branches of their own federal government. It’s enough to drive one to drink, as recounted in this week’s newspaper column, available online at The Ely Times and the Elko Daily Free Press.

First, the Environmental Protection Agency rewrote the rules for the Clean Water Act in such a way that gives it authority over just about any stream, dry creek bed or backyard wading pool in the country, even though the law as originally written was meant to protect navigable interstate waterways from pollution.

As if grabbing a claim on every drop of water on the surface were not enough insult and injury, the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Agriculture Department, has published a “Proposed Directive on Groundwater Resource Management” that would give it virtual veto power over the use of any aquifer remotely connected to any land under Forest Service jurisdiction.

The Western Governors Association has sent a letter to Agriculture Department Secretary Tom Vilsack challenging his agency’s authority to carry out this proposal and asking for answers to a number of questions. The letter, signed by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and others, notes Congress gave states sole authority over groundwater in the Desert Land Act of 1877 and the Supreme Court upheld this exclusive authority in a 1935 court case.

Among the questions posed by the governors are: “Given the legislative and legal context, what is the legal basis for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and USFS assertion of federal authority in the context of the Proposed Directive?” and “How will USFS ensure that the Proposed Directive will not infringe upon, abrogate, or in any way interfere with states’ exclusive authority to allocate and administer rights to the use of groundwater?”

Additionally, several Western congressmen — including Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District Rep. Mark Amodei — are attempting to insert language in a 2015 appropriations bill that would protect privately held water rights from federal takings. The language was drafted by Amodei and Rep. Scott Tipton of Colorado. It passed the House in March as the Water Rights Protection Act. Putting the language in the appropriations bill increases the chances it will be signed into law.

Amodei noted that in recent years various federal land agencies have made a concerted push to acquire water rights, including cases in which land managers demanded that water users apply for their water rights under state law in the name of the agency rather than for themselves.

In another letter to Vilsack signed by Western congressional members, including Amodei and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller but no other member of the Nevada delegation, the secretary is told the proposal would impose “a chilling effect on existing and future water resource development and the uses dependent on that development not only within NFS lands but outside these lands.”

The feds already control 87 percent of Nevada land, now they are coming for the water, too. Some are putting up a fight.

Read the entire column at Ely or Elko.