By Mark Waite
Pahrump should be designated a critical management basin for water, State Engineer Jason King said at a presentation at the Bob Ruud Community Center Tuesday night.
King made his intentions clear at the start, leading off with the reason for his presentation, the first by the state engineer’s office in Pahrump since 2007:
“The Pahrump basin is overappropriated and overpumped. Water levels continue to decline. We’re continuing to explore ways to minimize adverse impacts from overpumping,” he said.
Under Assembly Bill 419 approved by the 2011 state Legislature, if a hydrographic basin has been designated as a critical management area for at least 10 consecutive years, the state engineer shall order withdrawals of groundwater be restricted to those with priority water rights.
“Once a critical management area is designated, that starts a 10-year time clock and the whole purpose behind this is, we have a problem here. It doesn’t say in 10 years the water levels have to be where they were in 1940. What it says in the very last sentence is we would have to regulate by priority unless a groundwater management plan has been approved for that basin. We designate a basin as a critical management area. We start to work with stakeholders,” King said. “As long as there is a long-range plan, we don’t look to regulate by priority.”
Otherwise the state engineer could deal with the overpumping by regulating groundwater withdrawals by priority of water rights, but the most 50 senior water rights holders out of 850 would take up the 12,000 acre feet of perennial yield in the Pahrump groundwater basin, King said. As an alternative they could ask water rights holders to prove beneficial use of water within five years by state law, which was done in another hydrographic basin, he said. Or they could designate Pahrump a critical management area, under the new state legislation.
The state shall designate a critical management area upon receipt of a petition signed by the majority of certificated holders of water rights, or the state can use its discretion to designate one, King said.
Studies conservatively estimate Pahrump has 12,000 acre feet of perennial yield, replenishment of the aquifer, though the state engineer’s office believes the recharge is in the neighborhood of 20,000 to 30,000 acre feet per year, according to Rick Felling, Nevada Division of Water Resources chief of hydrology. But Pahrump Valley has permitted water rights allowing the withdrawal of up to 62,500 acre feet of water, he said. That doesn’t include 11,100 domestic wells in the valley.
Pahrump Valley has the potential to have 20,000 domestic wells drilled with 8,500 undeveloped parcels in excess of one acre, that would each be entitled to a well, Felling said.
“I hate to think 10 years from now we’re having another meeting out here, there’s 50,000 acre feet of pumping, water levels are declining, domestic wells have dried up, sanded up and we lost 10 years of opportunity to do something different,” King said.
Felling said pumping rates in Pahrump Valley have declined to a 60-year low after the end of farming in Pahrump Valley, when pumping reached a peak of more than 45,000 acre feet in 1967 after 15 years of withdrawals over 35,000 acre feet per year. The downturn in the economy is contributing to a drop in water usage in recent years, he said, now mostly for domestic purposes, as pumping levels fell to 13,300 acre feet in 2011, he said.
Some springs, like the Manse Spring, have recovered and are now flowing at the surface, Felling said. But other springs have dropped consistently over the long term, he said.
“Heavy pumping in the 1960s and 70s had a heavy effect on water tables in the valley,” Felling said.
“We don’t think the average domestic well pumps two acre feet in Pahrump Valley. We think on average they pump about a half an acre-foot per year,” Felling said. An acre foot is 326,000 gallons, or enough to fill an acre of land a foot deep. Domestic well owners have a right to use up to two acre feet per year by state law.
“Pahrump really stands out, the largest density of domestic wells over the largest area by far in the state,” Felling said.
There has been 30 to 60 feet of water level decline across the Pahrump basin since 1950, he said.
“If water really continues to decline, there’s the potential some of the shallow, really productive aquifers could become dewatered,” Felling said.
Felling said a drop in water levels could cause increased costs to pump water out of wells; could create conflicts with existing water rights holders, cause potential productive aquifers to become dewatered and subsidence in areas with hydrocollapsible soils.
Pahrump has a problem with subsidence due to some soils like caliche, dewatering from irrigation and fault line activity, Felling said.
“Right now there’s not a whole lot of development going on; we’re having the last amount of pumping in 60 years, it could be easy for someone to say what’s the problem? Water levels are coming up,” King said. “Well, now is the perfect time to take care of this issue the best we can.”
The state engineer suggested some solutions: interconnecting systems, consolidation of utilities, increasing water rights dedications required for parcels and subdivisions, ordinances requiring water conservation measures like xeriscaping, even importing water from other basins, like the Las Vegas Valley Water Authority is planning.
“I believe it’s in the best interest right now of the stakeholders to be an integral part of the solution, not wait for the state engineer’s office to begin regulating on authority,” King said. “I believe a critical management designation needs to be strongly considered by all the stakeholders in this basin.”
Resident Kathy Mueller asked why the state engineer’s office allowed all the housing and development to be approved if they knew this was going on. She accused the state engineer’s office of using lopsided facts and outdated 2005 studies.
“Nobody can tell me how much rainfall in the Spring Mountains is replenishing the basin,” she said. “It looks like things are leveling out, so it looks like getting government to regulate it and I moved to Pahrump so that wouldn’t happen.”
“We’re in a lull. Why put more of an onus on people who are pumping?” Mueller asked.
Steve Beitman complained a lot of the steps seemed to be aimed at domestic wells.
Tim Hafen said the state engineer required the dedication of three times the water rights for his subdivision than would be used.
“We have substantial water in northern Nye County. How could we have access to that water before Las Vegas gets it?” John Klenke asked.
King said building a pipeline to Pahrump would be expensive and require getting permits to cross public land, which comprises 85 percent of Nevada.
An audience member asked about the deep, carbonate aquifer below Pahrump. Felling said that carbonate aquifer is very deep and it would be prohibitively expensive to drill for water.
King told the audience, “Our office does not have the market cornered on how to manage this basin. You’re the ones that live in the basin. Let’s start working together.”