Editorial: Beware of changing state water law

A controversial bill that would have drastically changed state water law apparently has been scuttled for this session of the Legislature.

Gov. Steve Sisolak said no consensus on the bill could be reached by the time the session ends this week and state water regulators should put together a panel to study the matter prior to the next session, according to The Nevada Independent.

Opponents of Assembly Bill 30 said it would have eroded the foundation of our current water law that protects senior water rights holders and the environment as well.

Existing law requires the State Engineer, who is assigned the task of regulating water appropriations, to reject an application for a permit to take water if there is no unappropriated water at the source or if the proposed use conflicts with existing water rights in wells, springs or streams. AB30 would have allowed the State Engineer to authorize a new water use if an adequate monitoring, management and mitigation plan — known as 3M — is reached.

Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, which has been fighting for years an effort by the Las Vegas water district to pump groundwater from valleys in Eastern Nevada, said the bill was just a way for deep pocketed interests to get water.

“We are pleased at AB30’s demise and committed to working with all stakeholders on policy,” Roerink said. “But we will never compromise on the pipeline or any nefarious attempts to undermine the law. No part of the state should be viewed as a water colony or sacrificial lamb for another part of Nevada.”

He explained the problem with the bill as written, “The real key distinction is that, if you’re avoiding a conflict that means a conflict never happened, but if you are eliminating a conflict that means you’re allowing the state engineer to grant a permit when a conflict exists and say, well, we’ll grant the permit and you go ahead and you start and we’ll figure out how to eliminate the conflict, but go ahead. Start pumping.”

Efforts to change the water law have been ongoing since the state Supreme Court in 2015 ruled that the state water law says the State Engineer “shall reject” an application for use of water when the use “conflicts with existing rights.” The court also said there was insufficient evidence that mitigation efforts would eliminate the threat to the existing rights holders.

The case involved an application for water rights for a molybdenum mine in Eureka County. Just this past week the mining company and local ranchers announced an agreement to allow the mine to access water in return for a $1 million payment, pending approval by the State Engineer.

That’s how such conflicts should be settled. Let the free market decide the value and distribution of water from the original owners to others.

(GBWN pix)

Meanwhile, any panel that works on this topic should keep in mind that estimates about available water resources and the effectiveness of mitigation efforts are difficult to pen down.

For example, after the State Engineer granted the Las Vegas water authority permits for groundwater in several valleys in Eastern Nevada by creating a 3M plan, a state judge tossed the permit, saying, “There are no objective standards to determine when mitigation will be required and implemented. The Engineer has listed what mitigation efforts can possibly be made, i.e., stop pumping, modifying pumping, change location of pumps, drill new wells … but does not cite objective standards of when mitigation is necessary.”

In a recent op-ed in the Reno newspaper, Mark Butler, the retired superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park, and Alan O’Neill, the retired superintendent of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, said the use of 3M plans jeopardize fragile ecosystems that pronghorn, bighorn sheep, mule deer, desert tortoises and other creatures call home.

“We are not opposed to the state engineer permitting water and seeking to modernize water law,” the retirees wrote. “However, we are opposed to the state engineer unilaterally permitting water projects that do not adequately account for natural recharge and that fail to consider the intrinsic value of leaving water in the ground for the benefit of future generations.”

Be cautious of making changes to water law that could affect current rights holders and lead to the draw down of water tables that might take centuries to replenish — long after vegetation and wildlife have disappeared.

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.

Newspaper column: Opposition to wind farm project expressed

As part of its review process to determine whether to approve an application to allow construction of wind turbines on 32,000 acres of public land in Nevada adjacent to the California border just west of Searchlight, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conducted a series of scoping meetings to allow public input.

At a recent meeting in Las Vegas a half dozen speakers largely expressed support for renewable energy but not on the proposed site.

According to a 2012 filing with the Nevada Public Utilities Commission, Crescent Peak Renewables is proposing to erect 220 wind turbine towers standing more than 400 feet high and generating 500 megawatts of power. The proposed site is adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve and the Castle Mountain National Monument in California and the Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness and the South McCullough Wilderness in Nevada. All of the land is in Nevada.

Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness Area (Pix by Kurt Kuznicki)

Alan O’Neill, retired superintendent at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, testified there is a coalition of conservation organizations in California and Nevada that asked the BLM to hold off on issuing the notice of intent for the wind project until a supplemental resource management plan could be completed.

O’Neill also said the groups asked that the area be designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).

“What we’d like the BLM to do, and I’m speaking on behalf of a number of conservation organizations, is for BLM to develop an alternative as part of this EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) process that has a ‘no wind’ alternative,   combined with establishing the Castle Mountains ACEC. We think that’s a solid alternative,” O’Neill said, noting there are 19 environmental conservation organizations plus four retired superintendents backing the proposal.

“It seems disingenuous to me that in the overall presentation you’re talking about an impact of 750 acres,” actual area cleared for pads and roads, O’Neill remarked. “It is surrounded by wilderness characteristics with basically no roads, except backcountry roads. Those roads are 10 feet wide, and you’re talking about building 93 miles of new roads 36 feet wide, in addition to 15 miles of road that they’re expanding to 36. The impacts of that are astounding. And you’re talking about a hole in the doughnut. You’re talking about this area surrounded by a protected landscape that many of us in this room have spent literally decades trying to get protected. You’re talking about putting in an industrial-sized development.”

Laura Cunningham, a member of the environmental group Basin and Range Watch, stated, “I would recommend going to this area, like the Castle Mountains in Nevada, and hiking, because I think what’s not being said here is how absolutely beautiful this place is. It is really pristine. There are hardly any roads there.”

Cunningham added, “So, this is a really wild, remote area, really biologically diverse. My group, Basin and Range Watch, we’re going to have a ‘bioblitz’ April 28th and 29th.”

Her group’s website explains that the bioblitz, which is defined as a biological survey in an attempt to record all the living species within a designated area, is part of an effort to persuade the BLM to designate roughly 38,000 acres of Nevada desert — which includes the proposed wind farm — as an ACEC.

“I was just hiking there a couple of weeks ago and it’s got a unique, rare Sonoran Desert grassland with Joshua trees and yuccas,” she said. “You get up on some of those low ridges, they don’t look like much on a map, but when you’re there it looks like you’re in East Africa or Namibia. You just don’t see anything — no transmission lines, maybe there’s one road way off in the distance, a dirt road.”

Jose Witt, who said he belongs to the Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said that, while there is a need to replace fossil fuel power generation with renewable energy, there also is a need to protect view sheds and wildlife habitat.

“If we put this type of development in the middle of all these protected lands, it ruins the integrity and conservation values of all this area. We fragment the habitat and essentially lose islands of protection, or become islands, because there is no continuity,” Witt said.

Shannon Salter said the Joshua trees in the area need to be protected. “Some of them are over 30 feet tall and they are approximately 900 years old. We need them protected. The name of their forest is the Wee Thump Joshua forest. That word Wee Thump is a Paiute Indian word, which means ancient one,” Slater said.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.