Newspaper column: Rural water grab may be dead in the water

A state judge’s implacable ruling this past week may have finally forestalled attempts by the Clark County water agency to tap groundwater from White Pine, Nye and Lincoln counties.

Senior District Judge Robert Estes rejected proposals by the state water engineer to grant groundwater rights to the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), calling the plan illogical, contrary to state water law, as well as arbitrary and capricious.

In 1989 the agency that is now the SNWA filed paperwork with the state engineer to lay claim to 589,000 acre-feet of groundwater in central Nevada, planning to drill a network of water wells and a 300-mile pipeline from near Ely to Las Vegas. The litigation began immediately. Since then the amount of water sought has been trimmed to 84,000 acre-feet while the price tag on the pipeline has grown to an estimated $15 billion.

A lawyer for the Great Basin Water Network (GBWN), which along with White Pine County filed suit seeking to block the water grab, called the ruling a death knell.

“Judge Estes saw clearly through the various subterfuges and false reasoning advanced by both SNWA and the State Engineer, and he systematically ruled against them on every significant point in contention,” said public interest water attorney Simeon Herskovits in an emailed press release. “In our view, the rigor and care in Judge Estes’s ruling makes it highly unlikely that any part of this ruling would be subject to reversal on appeal. Under any reasonable reading, this powerful ruling should sound the death knell for this fatally misguided and potentially devastating groundwater export proposal.”

Estes’ language in his ruling was often stern. At one point he wrote, “Illogically, the Engineer has concluded that sustainability and beneficial use are mutually exclusive. Actually, sustainability and maximum beneficial use are two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other. This not a case of this Court substituting its judgment for that of the current Engineer. It is a case of this Court agreeing with the Engineer’s practice before the Engineer’s, for no logical, lawful or rational reason for changing the definitions of perennial yield.

“For decades, Nevada’s Water Engineers have recognized — and stated — that water appropriations must be sustainable, indefinitely, for both the appropriator and the reservoir, as required by Nevada law.”

Studies have found that the various aquifers involved are already at equilibrium — the amount of water being withdrawn is replaced annually by an equal amount due to rainfall and inflow from other aquifers — and any increased use would threaten agriculture, livestock watering, wildlife and natural springs.

The judge further ruled that the SNWA’s so-called 3M plan to monitor, manage and mitigate the effects of its water use when a trigger level is reached was no plan at all. The judge said “it is not a trigger at all. It is a process, obviously, or even not so obviously, understood by SNWA only. Compare this investigation ‘trigger’ with the trigger used by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) in Armagosa Valley. ‘When the water level falls 2.7 feet below a copper washer, mitigation must occur.” (Meaning the Amargosa Valley, of course.)

Estes concluded, “Accordingly, this Court finds that the water appropriations in Spring Valley threaten to prove detrimental to the public interest because the awards, at the current well configuration, result in water mining, will never reach equilibrium, and will result in depletion of the Spring Valley aquifer. The award is inconsistent with Nevada water law … is inconsistent with the State Engineer’s long held rules of water appropriation, and is arbitrary and capricious.”

An appeal of Estes’ ruling does not appear to be imminent. The water agency issued a statement to the press saying, “Since these groundwater applications were filed more than 30 years ago, Southern Nevada has emerged as a world leader in urban water conservation. Through SNWA’s proactive water resource management and the community’s achievements in water efficiency, there is no scenario in our Water Resource Plan where this project would be needed within the next 30 years.”

In 2017 a federal judge even blocked BLM from granting the water authority a right-of-way across federal land for its proposed pipeline, saying the environmental impact assessment was inadequate.

“SNWA has no right-of-way for the pipeline, and no rights to water with which to fill the pipeline,” said Kyle Roerink, GBWN executive director. “This project is dead in the water. It’s time for SNWA to finally move on.”

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.

Editorial: Time to bring wild horse population under control

The Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board met in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 31 and came up with a list of recommendations for the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service on how to curb the exploding wild horse and burro populations on the public land in 10 Western states.

On a vote of eight in favor with one member abstaining, the advisory panel recommended, “The Advisory Board recognizes the value of and supports ongoing research and funding of humane long-term fertility control and permanent sterilization as viable tools in our quest to achieve a thriving ecological balance by achieving and maintaining AML (appropriate management level).”

There are about 90,000 wild horses and burros on the range, though the BLM estimates the range can adequately support less than 27,000.

According to a United Press International account, the permanent sterilization proposals includes the use of a surgical procedure called “ovariectomy via colpotomy” — in which a metal rod is inserted into the mare severing the horse’s ovaries.

A year ago, veterinary researchers at Colorado State University withdrew from a plan to use the technique at a mass-spaying event in Oregon. The university backed off after being attacked in the press by self-styled animal rights activists who called the practice “barbaric.”

Days before the advisory board meeting a group of 78 veterinarians sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt asking that some other method of fertility control be used because ovariectomy via colpotomy is “far more invasive, inhumane, and risky than other non-surgical methods of fertility control …”

But, according to information posted on a BLM website explaining the procedure and its planned use, ovariectomy via colpotomy has been used for more than 100 years on domestic horses. It takes approximately 15 minutes per mare, is performed under standing sedation and there are no external incisions that could increase the risk of infection.

The website says that it takes about one week for the mare to recover and be returned to the range, and previous use on feral mares shows a less than 2 percent mortality rate. Also the cost per mare is less than the $300 it costs for one dose of PZP-22, a chemical fertility drug delivered by darting. The darting must be repeated, while the surgical method lasts a lifetime.

The BLM also explained why spaying is more effective than gelding.

“With vasectomy or gelding, there is little to no expected reduction in growth rates until a critical threshold in the percentage of stallions treated has been reached — although this exact number is unknown, according to one peer-reviewed research paper, 80% or more of stallions may need to be treated in order to stabilize wild horse populations just due to the fact that a single stallion can impregnate many mares on the range,” the agency says. “Logistically and financially, this is not practical. In one well-studied herd, about 14 percent of stallions with a harem were 4 years old or less when they first held their harem. Therefore, to reliably prevent males from impregnating mares, BLM would need to conduct gathers every 3 years just to geld or vasectomize nearly all the young males.”

Congress has for years blocked funding that would allow captured wild horses and burros to be sold for slaughter in Canada and Mexico.

There are currently 50,000 feral horses and burros being held in pens and private pastures at a cost of $50,000 each over their lifetimes.

UPI reports that BLM acting director, William Pendley, plans to ask Congress for $5 billion over the next 15 years — about $3,750 per animal per year — to bring population levels down. Getting the populations under control is the only way to stanch the ongoing hemorrhage of tax money.

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.

Wild horses on the range. (BLM pix)

Editorial: Judge blocks state sage grouse protection plans

A greater sage grouse male struts for a female. (Pix by Jeannie Stafford for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A federal judge in Idaho has pulled the rug out from under the Western states that had worked with the federal public land agencies to create separate plans to preserve sage grouse habitat and yet still allow fruitful economic activity such as mining, oil and gas exploration, farming and grazing.

U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill granted an injunction blocking those plans in a lawsuit brought by several self-styled environmental groups. The judge agreed that the Bureau of Land Management plans announced this past spring failed to make a one-size-fits all, range-wide analysis, failed to evaluate climate change and removed protections for the birds unjustified by science and conditions on the ground. Never mind that the colorful fowl best known for its strutting mating ritual has never been added to the Endangered Species list, though its population in recent years has declined from millions to about half a million.

The suit — brought by the Western Watersheds Project, the Wildearth Guardians, Center for Biological Diversity and the Prairie Hills Audubon Society — opposed the regionalized plans for grouse protection in Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon and California.

The state-by-state plans announced in March backed off Obama administration plans that would have largely blocked most economic activity near grouse habitat.

“The State of Nevada thanks the Bureau of Land Management for incorporating our concerns and respecting the Greater Sage-Grouse habitat plan developed cooperatively by Nevada state agencies and local stakeholders,” Nevada’s Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak was quoted as saying at the time in a statement conveyed by the BLM. “In particular, Nevada appreciates the BLM’s commitment to compensatory mitigation as an integral part of the success of Nevada’s habitat management plan. We look forward to working closely with the BLM Nevada Office and the Department of Interior leadership to ensure the revised habitat plans are fully successful.”

A year earlier, as the Nevada Plan was being finalized then-Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval also praised the cooperation the state was getting from the Trump administration land agencies. “I look forward to reviewing the draft Environmental Impact Statement and I trust that the Department of the Interior will continue to engage with and value the opinions of the impacted western governors,” Sandoval was quoted as saying. “I am confident we can find success by working together.”

Nevada’s Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Republican Congressman Mark Amodei also thanked the Interior Department for respecting the work of Nevada stakeholders.

But the judge has prevented those regional plans from being used.

Courthouse News quoted an attorney representing the plaintiffs as saying of the ruling, “The Bureau of Land Management deliberately undermined protections for the sage grouse, then had the audacity to claim these rollbacks would not impact the species. The law demands more. This injunction is critical to protecting the sagebrush steppe and this icon of the American West.”

What most people forget is that this icon of the American West never was seen by early explorers of the American West in the 1820s and 1830s, nor by the first wagon trains in the 1840s. Not until settlers brought in horses, cattle, oxen and sheep, which fertilized the soil and ground the vegetation into the ground, while ranchers also improved water sources, did the sage grouse population grow into the millions. Human activity actually caused the birds to thrive. Fires and the lack of predator control have caused the grouse population to dwindle somewhat, not mining, exploration, grazing and farming.

Local common sense management of the lands — not one-size-fits-none central planning — will preserve the sage grouse and jobs.

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.

Editorial: Wild horse overpopulation is dire

Wild horses at puddle. (BLM Nevada pix via E&E News)

We’ve known for years that the wild horse and burro population growth on public land in the West is not sustainable, but little is being done about it.

A recent article in the online E&E News, which touts itself as the essential news source for energy and environment professionals, by Scott Streater paints an eye-opening on-the-ground picture of just how dire the situation is, especially in Nevada.

With a dateline of Eureka County, the piece opens with a glimpse of 100 head of wild horses gathered about a tiny pool of water around which most of the forage has long since been consumed by the sweltering day in July when reporter was given a tour.

“This is just not sustainable,” Ruth Thompson, Bureau of Land Management’s Nevada Wild Horse and Burro Program manager, tells the reporter while looking down into the valley. She explains that the edible grasses have been eaten down to the root, allowing invasive species such as cheatgrass, which is edible only for a brief period in the spring, to takeover and crowd out the native species.

Currently Nevada, according to the BLM, has more than 47,000 wild horses and burros on the range, though it can sustain less than 13,000. Nationally, there are 88,000 wild horses and burros, though the range can sustain less than 27,000. In addition, the BLM warehouses nearly 50,000 wild horses and burros on private pastures and in corrals at a cost of $50 million a year, which consumes most of the $66.7 million budgeted for the management of the wild horses and burros.

Unchecked by roundups or contraceptive measures, the populations of the feral beasts can double in just four years.

As for the cheatgrass supplanting edible forage, the E&E article quotes Dean Bolstad, who retired this past year as division chief of BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, as saying, “And once you get there, you have lost the habitat for wildlife, and they probably can never be restored to a perennial grassland that provides diverse habitat for wildlife and all kinds of other multiple uses that BLM is responsible for.” That affects native wildlife such as mule deer, antelope and greater sage grouse.

Streater goes on to relate that in the past year BLM removed 11,472 horses from federal rangelands, 5,800 of those were rounded up in “emergency gathers” because of a lack of water or forage, but as many as 18,000 foals were born on the range in that year. A BLM official told the reporter that darting the mares with fertility drugs every year is simply not practical.

The number of wild horses and burros adopted each year has fallen to about 2,500 in recent years, though the BLM is now offering $1,000 incentive payments to those who adopt the animals and maintain certain conditions.

The situation on the range is dire for the horses and burros, as well as for native wildlife and cattle and sheep. Our representatives in Congress need to work toward a solution. And, yes, that solution might have to include what was called for in the original 1971 law protecting these animals: “The Secretary (of the Interior) shall cause additional excess wild free-roaming horses and burros for which an adoption demand by qualified individuals does not exist to be destroyed in the most humane and cost efficient manner possible,” though Congress has denied funding for euthanasia for years.

That would be better than having the animals starve and die of thirst after protracted suffering.

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: Water agency should not skirt law and courts

Clark County has sent to Congress a bill draft proposing that more than 50,000 acres of federal public land in the Las Vegas Valley be opened for private development, but dangling like a vestigial tail at the end of the 21-page proposal is an end-run around the courts and the law that could allow the currently stalled rural water grab by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) to take place.

In 2017 a federal judge ruled that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) could grant the water agency right-of-way for a 300-mile 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 task may be impossible, because federal studies show the interconnected aquifers are already at equilibrium — water that is already 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 lands bill Clark County sent to Congress calls for the Interior Department to give the 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.”

A right-of-way for a power line could easily accommodate pipelines, too.

The Great Basin Water Network (GBWN) — a coalition of conservationists, rural officials, tribes and agricultural interests which was one of the parties that successfully sued to block the water grab — is crying foul over the decision to try to skirt the law and the federal judge’s ruling with legislation.

“What that decision tells us is that SNWA and federal land managers cannot figure out how to mitigate a project that would –– when fully built –– destroy 305 springs, 112 miles of streams, 8,000 acres of wetlands, and 191,000 acres of shrubland habitat on public lands, according to the BLM,” GBWN and others write in a letter to Nevada’s congressional delegation. “In the path of this destruction is Nevada’s first national park, Great Basin, which hosts the state’s only glacier, supports magnificent stands of ancient bristlecone pines, and dazzles visitors with a majestic network of limestone caves.”

In a press release announcing its opposition to the bill draft, Kyle Roerink, GBWN’s executive director, stated, “SNWA is trying to re-write the laws to allow their destructive pipeline and remove barriers that were enacted to protect Nevadans and their public resources. Members of the delegation should not do SNWA’s dirty work by gutting bedrock environmental protections to pave the way for a project that will kill endangered species, mine groundwater, and siphon away Eastern Nevada’s future in return for sprawl.”

Roerink also noted the opponents have been fighting the water grab for 30 years.

If it goes forward, it is estimated the groundwater project will take 40 years to complete at a cost of $15 billion — a cost that would require the tripling of water rates in Clark County. According to an SNWA resource plan the water is not needed until 2035.

“Its gargantuan $15 billion price tag (in 2011 dollars) highlights SNWA’s blatant disregard for its own ratepayers –– many of whom live on low or fixed incomes,” Roerink argues. “Those costs could mean water bills skyrocketing in Las Vegas while wildlife, landscapes, businesses, local governments and tribes suffer in Eastern Nevada.”

In his 2017 ruling federal Judge Andrew Gordon noted the importance of the controversy to both sides of the issue, writing, “I am sensitive to the strong feelings and weighty interests at stake in this contest over Nevada’s water — after all, in the West, ‘whisky’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’ over.’ There can be no question that drawing this much water from these desert aquifers will harm the ecosystem and impact cultural sites that are important to our citizens. On the other hand, southern Nevada faces an intractable water shortage.”

Our congressional delegation should allow Clark County to develop land within its boundaries, but should not grant this proposed end-run around the courts and the law to slake its thirst.

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.

Newspaper column: Advocate for West appointed acting head of BLM

BLM land in Nevada (BLM pix)

The self-styled cactus hugging collectivists are aghast.

This past week Interior Secretary David Bernhardt named William Perry Pendley of Wyoming acting head of the Bureau of Land Management, which controls 63 percent of the land in Nevada, the largest portion of the 87 percent of the state land controlled by various federal agencies.

Pendley, who worked in the Interior Department under President Reagan, has actually advocated selling off public lands instead of holding onto them in perpetuity.

A group calling itself the Western Values Project called Pendley dangerous and an extremist. Its executive director, Chris Saeger, was quoted as saying, “This appointment shows Trump and Bernhardt are only interested in selling off public lands to the highest bidder. Pendley is an outspoken advocate for the transfer of public lands to the state. Anything they’ve ever said about not selling off public lands has just been a political smokescreen to distract from their real intentions: handing over public lands to their special interest allies.”

William Perry Pendley

What Pendley has advocated is adhering to the intentions of the Founders, who fully intended for all lands owned by the federal government be sold. In an article in the National Review in 2016, Pendley argues that Article I of the Constitution “gives Congress unlimited power ‘to dispose of’ its property, but sharply limits its rulemaking authority to ‘needful Rules and Regulations.’ The Supreme Court correctly and narrowly interpreted the Property Clause in 1845, holding that the clause gave rise to a constitutional duty to dispose of its land holdings.”

Though opponents of selling off federal lands point to the Disclaimer Clauses that are found in verbiage covering admission of new states to the Union — in which the states “forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public land lying within” the new state’s boundary — the new head of the BLM says the provision was included simply to assure the clear title of the United States so the land could be sold.

In fact, Nevada’s admission document contains a Disclaimer Clause, but also states that the land “shall be sold,” with 5 percent of proceeds going to the state. Thus, the original intention seems pretty clear. Obtain clear title. Sell the land. Divide the proceeds.

Editorial: Moving BLM HQ out West is a welcome change

The Interior Department this past week announced that it is moving the headquarters of its Bureau of Land Management (BLM) division out of Washington, D.C., and west to Grand Junction, Colo., as well as moving a number of senior management staffers into 11 Western states, including 50 to Nevada, according to The Associated Press.

While the agency estimates the move could save as much $100 million over the next 20 years due to lower office space costs and lower cost-of-living differentials for federal employees, a more important and significant aspect may be putting the bureaucrats who manage 388,000 square miles of federal public land in 12 Western states closer to the people who are affected by their decisions. Human nature dictates it is harder to look across your desk at a neighbor and say no to a profitable endeavor than it is from 2,000 miles away.

That’s essentially what Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt intimated in a press release announcing the decision, “A meaningful realignment of our operations is not simply about where functions are performed; rather, it is rooted in how changes will better respond to the needs of the American people. Under our proposal, every Western state will gain additional staff resources. This approach will play an invaluable role in serving the American people more efficiently while also advancing the Bureau of Land Management’s multiple-use mission. Shifting critical leadership positions and supporting staff to western states — where an overwhelming majority of federal lands are located — is not only a better management system, it is beneficial to the interest of the American public in these communities, cities, counties, and states.”

In a letter to Congress, Joseph Balash, an assistant secretary of the Interior, said about 300 jobs are to be moved West in the coming year and about 60 positions will remain in Washington to handle budget and policy issues and work with Congress. The BLM already has about 10,000 jobs in the West.

Grand Junction would get less than 30 of the 85 new jobs slated for Colorado, with most of the rest residing in suburban Denver, where the federal government already has a number of regional offices. In addition to Nevada’s 50 new jobs, Utah is to add 45 and Arizona and New Mexico about 40 each. 

Of course some Democrats in Congress oppose the move, which started under former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, because it lessens their sway.

Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement posted on his congressional website, “This administration has been handing over public lands to fossil fuel companies at record speed, and this move is part of that agenda. Putting BLM headquarters down the road from Secretary Bernhardt’s home town just makes it easier for special interests to walk in the door demanding favors without congressional oversight or accountability. The BLM officials based in Washington are here to work directly with Congress and their federal colleagues, and that function is going to take a permanent hit if this move goes forward. The agency will lose a lot of good people because of this move, and I suspect that’s the administration’s real goal here.”

Bernhardt is from Rifle, Colo., about 60 miles east of Grand Junction.

The AP quoted Kathleen Sgamma, president of the oil industry trade group Western Energy Alliance, who had a different take on the question of influence. “The whole focus will be on the West, where it should be,” Sgamma said. “Right now, it’s easy to sit in D.C. and deny a rancher a grazing permit. It’s not so easy when he’s sitting across the table from you.”

In a similar vein, the AP quoted Mike Noel, a rancher and former Utah state lawmaker, as saying, “Having the BLM out here and closer to the ground, we’re going to get better decisions. There’s a different philosophy out here than there is in Washington, D.C.”

As we said, it is harder to say no to your neighbor, and that is a good thing. The move is a welcomed effort to better serve those most impacted by BLM decisions. 

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.

Photo courtesy Visit Grand Junction, shows Rattlesnake Canyon, one of many BLM-administered natural wonders in Colorado’s Grand Valley.