Proposed legislation messes with senior water rights

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Great Basin Water Network "Water is Life" video still. (greatbasinwater.net)

Northern Nevada farmers, local government officials, environmentalists and tribes converged on Carson City Wednesday to oppose several bills they believe would weaken senior water rights and facilitate the controversial Las Vegas groundwater pipeline.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority which hopes to build the water pumping and piping project, declared itself neutral on the bill — if aggressively so, warning legislators that if they did not act, the state would end up spending money in costly lawsuits.

The state engineer, meanwhile, asserted that building the pipeline is not the intent of the legislation.

“To preemptively dispel any rumors that I have heard and to put to rest any perception that this or any division bill is intended to or for the purpose of facilitating large water development projects,” said acting state engineer Tim Wilson during his opening testimony. “I want to be clear this is absolutely untrue.”

Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada state director of The Center for Biological Diversity, which has successfully fought against the Las Vegas pipeline in court, called the legislation “The Pipeline Bills”.

“Right now our attorney’s who are the experts on this issue and have been working on the issue for over a decade are very clear, this would enable the pipeline,” Donnelly said.

The bills in question, AB30 and AB51, are designed to provide the Nevada Division of Water Resources legislative direction to help avoid or eliminate a potential conflict when deciding whether or not to grant new water right applications.

Assembly Bill 51, proposes to implement “conjunctive management” — policies recognizing that surface water and groundwater are one and the same –– as a means for granting new water permits and managing existing allocations.

While opponents agree that the bill would be good in theory, they believe the bill is too vague as its written now, and fear it would allow deep-pocketed interests to buy their way around conflicts with existing senior water rights holders, and unsustainably over-appropriate the resource.

While both bills drew criticism, the majority of the opposition was aimed at AB30.

Assembly Bill 30, authorizes the state engineer to use monitoring, management, and mitigation (3M) plans to help resolve conflicts between Nevadans with existing junior and senior rights holders.

Under current water law, the earliest water users — senior rights holders — have the highest priority. In times of shortage, senior water right holders are entitled to all of their water before more junior water right holders are entitled to any.

Existing law requires the state engineer to reject an application for a permit to pump groundwater if it conflicts with a senior holder’s existing rights.

AB30 would allow the state engineer to consider certain proposals, like 3M plans, to avoid or eliminate those conflicts under certain circumstances at the expense of senior water rights holders.

“To adapt to today’s water resources challenges the Nevada division of water resources needs opportunities for flexibility to best manage its limited water resources and to fulfill its legal duties and responsibilities,” said Wilson. “As Nevada’s population grows the ever increasing demand on our water resources, these demands will inevitably create conflicts, therefore, the responsibility to manage those conflicts is imperative.”

Wilson said 3M plans would only be used in very specific instances where conflicting groups might be able to come to an agreement. If it’s determined that a junior water right holder would impair a senior water right holder in a manner that can not be resolved through monitoring and management, a junior water right holder would have to concede to a senior water right holder, said Wilson.

snwa plan
SNWA’s pumping and piping plan. (Image: SNWA)

He stressed that the bill would not lead to senior water rights being violated for the purpose of large-scale projects like the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s (SNWA) Groundwater Development Project, which proposes to build a 250-mile water pipeline that would carry 27 billion gallons of groundwater each year from rural Eastern Nevada aquifers to Southern Nevada. Opponents believe the project would drain aquifers that feed natural wetlands where some of Nevada’s rarest and most vulnerable species live.

“This can not be used in any way to go around and dry up springs. It’s not going to happen,” Wilson said.

While the specter of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s water pipeline project loomed over the meeting, SNWA lobbyist Andy Belanger testified as neutral on the bill.

“We can’t support the bill in its current form,” Belanger said. “We don’t oppose the bill in its current form. But we do believe that if the Legislature does not act, at some point in the future you are going to spend a lot more money in the courts than you are today.”

Opponents of AB30 were skeptical and believe that unnecessary that the legislation would allow the state engineer to freely loosen standards.

Opponents included the Confederated Tribes of Goshute, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, the Nevada Farm Bureau, Douglas County, Storey County and the Pershing County Water Conservation District (PCWCD).

Environmental groups like the Great Basin Water Network, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy spoke in opposition to the bills as well.

Rupert Steele the Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Goshute in Eastern Nevada asked the Legislature to oppose the bill out of fear that it would lead to an advancement of the SNWA groundwater pipeline. Part of the groundwater sought by the SNWA included water that feeds into the Swamp Cedar Area within Spring Valley of east-central Nevada, a valley of significant cultural importance the tribe. The tribes believe any water siphoned from these aquifers would damage their ancestral home.

“SNWA would not mitigate on swamp cedars until every last cedar tree was dead. They would be the sole decision makers on how to mitigate,” Steele said. “The bills would pave a new way for the Southern Nevada Water Authority groundwater project while making rural Nevadans suffer.”

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.

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