The little Patch of Heaven keeps getting washed away a little bit at a time.
Since 2010 the Ministero Roca Solida (Solid Rock) church, which owns a 40-acre parcel of private land nestled in the middle of the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Pahrump that it calls Patch of Heaven, has been fighting to protect its property and water rights from the federal government.
After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rerouted a stream that had run through the church property since at least the 1880s, putatively in an effort to reintroduce speckled dace, an endangered minnow, the rerouted stream overflowed its poorly engineered banks in 2010, again in 2015 and now twice this year extensively damaging the private land.
The first flooding cause $86,000 but the subsequent floods have created so much damage the church’s attorney is asking the federal court to award the church the entire value of the now practically unusable property and the value of five years of water rights for which the church as been deprived — $3 million or completely restore the property to its pre-diversion-project status.
The church claims the stream diversion was in violation of both federal and state laws.
Church minister Victor Fuentes and his wife purchased the land and its buildings in 2006 for $500,000 using church donations with the intent of using the property as a church retreat and to use the stream that ran through it for baptisms, recreation and for livestock. The church has since upgraded the buildings.
The church is being represented by the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation, which is operated by attorney Joseph Becker.
Becker wrote in the latest lawsuit, filed this past month, that the Fish and Wildlife stream diversion moved the stream completely off of the church property and onto higher ground, which has resulted in modest rainfalls causing the stream to flood back into its original channel but in such a way that the water has eroded the land, “leaving a mini-Grand-Canyonlike landscape in the flood’s wake.” (Fuentes final complaint)
He added, “With each subsequent rainfall, the new rainfall creates new pathways for rushing water to re-enter Plaintiff’s land. The result is that less and less rainfall now results in more and more flooding and flood damage.”
The case has dragged on so long that there is a danger of running past the statute of limitations for a takings claim under the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits taking of private property without just compensation.
In addition to the erosion and other damages, the suit notes that the federal land agency has been frequently closing access roads to the church’s property, purportedly due to the flooding caused by the government, and is failing to maintain access roads as required by an agreement with Nye County, making it difficult to even access the property.
Further, Becker writes, “Campers are typically dropped off in buses, which then depart the premises and return at the conclusion of camp, thus leaving would-be campers stranded and in danger of harm on the grounds in the event of precipitation and flooding.”
The courts need to step up and force the federal land agencies to treat private property and water rights with the respect guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
A version of this editorial appears this past 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.