Newspaper column: Latest study should further dampen Las Vegas’ appetite for rural groundwater

A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey published this summer has added credence and hard numbers to the arguments from opponents to a plan by Las Vegas water utilities to tap 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater from valleys in White Pine and Lincoln counties.

The study reviewed water data and used a computer simulation to research a 9,000-acre swath of land collectively called Snake Valley that straddles the Nevada-Utah border and includes a number of interconnected aquifers and named valleys. As Jason King, Nevada’s state engineer who is responsible for water rights allocation in Nevada, found previously, the study noted that tapping water in one area would have far reaching affects.

USGS map of Snake Valley

Proposed increases in water withdrawals in and near Snake Valley by the Southern Nevada Water Authority would likely result in declining groundwater levels and a decrease in natural discharge to springs and streams, the study warned, as reported in this week’s newspaper column, available online at The Ely Times, the Elko Daily Free Press and the Mesquite Local News.

“Because of the magnitude of the proposed development project and the interconnected nature of groundwater basins in the region, there have been concerns that new pumping will disrupt Snake Valley’s groundwater supplies and threaten the wetlands and ranches that rely upon them,” said Melissa Masbruch, USGS scientist and lead author of the new report. “This study can help assess the effects of future groundwater withdrawals on groundwater resources in the Snake Valley area.”

Masbruch added, “This new model represents a more robust quantification of groundwater availability than previous studies because the model integrates all components of the groundwater budget.”

The study calculated all the groundwater recharge for Snake Valley from various sources, including precipitation, unconsumed irrigation and inflow from other aquifers and found that the valley groundwater receives about 175,000 acre-feet. But when all of the outflow is added up — current wells, springs, streams and outflow to other aquifers— it is almost precisely the same amount of water — equilibrium.

This prompts the authors of the study to warn, “Increased well withdrawals within these high transmissivity areas will likely affect a large part of the study area, resulting in declining groundwater levels, as well as leading to a decrease in natural discharge to springs …”

USGS employee at well near the southern Snake Range, Nev.

It is those springs and streams that support livestock, agriculture and a vast array of wildlife, some of which are threatened or endangered. Declining groundwater levels would mean local wells might have to be drilled deeper, a very expensive proposition for local landowners and homeowners.

A 75-page lawsuit filed earlier this year by a coalition of local governments, private organizations and Indian tribes made this point but without having precise figures to support their suspicions. Among the plaintiffs in the case are White Pine County, the Great Basin Water Network, the Sierra Club and the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority, which addresses water resource issues for Churchill, Elko, Esmeralda, Eureka, Lander, Nye, Pershing and White Pine counties or about 65 percent of the land in Nevada.

“The proposed pumping would amount to a devastating groundwater mining project, under which the groundwater system would not even begin to approach equilibrium for thousands of years, with the potential of never reaching equilibrium,” the suit contended.

The figures in the USGS study also add precision underpinning to a ruling a year ago by Senior Judge Robert Estes who called the water authority’s plans for the water transfer “arbitrary and capricious” because its plans for monitoring, mitigating and managing the water take contained no precise triggers.

“There are no objective standards to determine when mitigation will be required and implemented,” the judge wrote. “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.”

Judge Estes concluded that if “it is premature to set triggers and thresholds, it is premature to grant water rights.” He remanded the engineer’s rulings for recalculation of water availability and further studies.

If nothing else, the Estes ruling is almost certain to reduce the amount of water Las Vegas could tap from its northern neighbors.

A study for the water authority by Hobbs, Ong & Associates of Las Vegas found that Las Vegas water rates would have to triple to pay for the $15 billion project. The less water drawn, the higher the cost per gallon.

It seems unlikely the water authority can justify spending that kind of money if the spigot could be turned off because of damage of the environment, which this study suggests is likely.

‘If the law supposes that … the law is a ass — a idiot’

A victory for free speech is a victory, even if it is for the wrong reason.

Carson City Senor District Judge Robert Estes tossed a lawsuit from the Nevada Secretary of State against Americans for Prosperity nearly a month ago, saying the statute in question applies only to those spending money “on behalf” of a candidate, according to the AP.

The AFP —  funded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch — sent out mailers in 2012 during the election campaign of Kelvin Atkinson for state Senate in 2012. Those mailers criticized Atkinson for co-sponsoring a 2011 renewable energy bill, AB416, It has been estimated the bill would have cost power customers as much as $1 billion in higher bills.

“There can be no argument whatsoever that the fliers were sent on behalf of Assemblyman Atkinson,” Estes wrote in his Oct. 17 ruling, but he the state’s claim that the meaning of “on behalf” is the same as “about” a candidate is a “strained argument.”

“Certainly many people benefited by mailing fliers, even the post office,” the judge wrote. “Simply because an entity may benefit from a political activity, it is not a given that the activity was done on the beneficiaries’ behalf.”

Secretary of State Ross Miller said he won’t appeal and noted he has prevailed in two similar cases.

“This court based its decision on a factual determination of a specific political mailer,” Miller told the AP. “The facts of each case are different and I don’t anticipate that this ruling will prevent us in any way from enforcing the rules moving forward.”

Of course the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s drooling liberal lapdog columnist Steve Sebelius doesn’t believe billionaires should allowed free speech and called on the state’s lawmakers to “revise the law to encompass all electioneering communications designed to influence the public in any way, and attach a requirement to report donations and expenditures. With the U.S. Supreme Court expanding the rights of corporations to influence elections, and the increasing use of nonprofits that can legally shield donors, it’s more important than ever that the people know who’s trying to buy their votes, and why.”

Of course this is palpable nonsense and contrary to the principles and actions of the Founders who often penned anonymous screeds. The voters are perfectly capable of using their own noggins to evaluate any message that reaches their ears. They do not need tax-funded protection against their own gullibility.

In 1988, Margaret McIntyre was fined $100 for distributing leaflets opposing a school tax levy at a public meeting in Westerville, Ohio. She had violated a state law prohibiting unsigned leaflets.

In declaring the Ohio law unconstitutional, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote:

“Under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent. Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. … It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation — and their ideas from suppression — at the hand of an intolerant society.”

In the Citizens United case — the case that Obama blasted the high court for in a State of the Union address with justices sitting in front of him — the court held that groups, corporations and unions may not be singled out and barred from spending their own money in support of or opposition to a candidate or a cause.

Justice Antonin Scalia explained in a concurrence:

“The (First) Amendment is written in terms of ‘speech,’ not speakers. Its text offers no foothold for excluding any category of speaker, from single individuals to partnerships of individuals, to unincorporated associations of individuals, to incorporated associations of individuals — and the dissent offers no evidence about the original meaning of the text to support any such exclusion. We are therefore simply left with the question whether the speech at issue in this case is ‘speech’ covered by the First Amendment. No one says otherwise.”

But in an inexplicable self-contradiction, the ruling let stand reporting and disclosure requirements similar to those in Nevada law. How can you remain anonymous if you must disclose?

But Justice Clarence Thomas, in a partial dissent, chided his comrades for this duplicity:

“The disclosure, disclaimer, and reporting requirements in (the law) are also unconstitutional. …

“Congress may not abridge the ‘right to anonymous speech’ based on the ‘simple interest in providing voters with additional relevant information …’ “

Free speech is a right, not a privilege that requires a permit or disclosure of identity. The entire Nevada law needs to be either repealed or declared unconstitutional. Abridging is abridging is abridging.

This law is a ass.

I wonder what R-J columnists would write if the Stephens family and Club for Growth started sending out political mailers without first paying homage to Ross Miller.

For a thorough discussion of this topic, read Steven Miller’s three-part series, ”R.I.P., Publius,” at Nevada Policy Research Institute — Part IPart IIPart III.