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Legislature to attempt to fix Pahrump water concerns

The Nevada Division of Water Resources has proposed a controversial fix to Pahrump’s projected water woes by the crafting of two bills, scheduled to be heard by the state Legislature on Feb. 11.

State engineer Jason King, in pre-filed Senate Bill 65, has asked that Chapter 533 of Nevada’s Revised Statutes relating to the adjudication of vested water rights and provisions relating to underground water be “modernized.” King specifically cited the need for clarification of language that deals with surface stream water. He proposed an expanded definition of a stream or stream system to include the “source of surface water or ground water.”

King characterized Senate Bill 65 as largely a “housekeeping” bill, which cleans up and clarifies language, as well as eliminates “old language, which doesn’t make sense anymore.”

When asked for a comparison of Senate Bill 65 and the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2014 proposed clarification of the Clean Water Act to expand the definition of the “waters of the United States” to include subsurface and temporary waters that provide connectivity to surface streams and wetlands; King admitted that his proposal is “somewhat connected” to the EPA proposal. Even so, he said, the issues are vastly different.

King said that Nevada water law regulates and manages water resources and those duties should not be infringed upon by a federal authority. King said that he, like many western state lawmakers, opposes the EPA proposal.

Nevada Senator Pete Goicoechea and Assemblyman James Oscarson, stand united with King in their opposition to the EPA proposal, which projects final rule promulgation in April. Goicoechea said the EPA proposal, “Flies right in the face of Nevada’s water law.”

Regarding Senate Bill 65, Goicoechea said that he would welcome a more developed study and clarification on the connectivity of surface and ground water. However, he said, other proposed amendments to the bill give “too much power” to the state water engineer. He refers to a proposed amendment, in which he understands that surface water rights users are to be made whole if the state water engineer determines that underground pumping impacted surface water.

Due to its length, and language, Goicoechea is concerned that the bill might “die” in committee.

“It will definitely have to be tweaked considerably before it will be accepted,” he said. He expects a lot of opposition to the bill, he said.

A second bill, Senate Bill 81, addresses, in part, over-appropriation of water rights. That bill, Oscarson said, requires more study and research.

That bill also proposes a change from all “critical” management areas to “active” management areas. A change, which King said, would merely remove the “stigma” attached to a particular designation.

King said that he has worked with Pahrump basin stakeholders to address other areas of permissive use such as regulation of priority water rights which would limit both the drilling of new domestic wells and the quantity of water that could be pumped from existing wells.

He has also proposed that under an “active” management area designation, he would be given absolute power to: limit irrigated areas and the movement of water rights; impose or authorize conservation practices that might otherwise result in forfeiture of water rights; the number of extensions of time for filing proofs of completion of construction and application of water to beneficial use; to designate preferred uses of existing rights, to assess fees to establish a fund to retire water rights and any other action the state engineer deems necessary.

Priority water rights are another issue that must be dealt with in conservation efforts, King said. Senior water right holders are protected over junior water right holders, and if there is a conflict, the senior right holder gets a priority. “That is why we want people who are using water to come up with a plan,” King said. The Pahrump Basin 162 groundwater management committee has been working diligently to craft a priority list to address this concern.

King said that under current water law, he believes that his office has the authority to curtail the drilling of new domestic wells and the amount of water being drawn from domestic wells. However, he envisions domestic restrictions to apply to outdoor water use, for uses such as watering lawns or garden, washing vehicles, etc.

The state water law’s “use it or lose it” component is contradictory to conservation initiatives, King said.

As an explanation of “banking” water rights, as a conservation measure, King advocated for the relinquishment of a certain number of acre feet of water rights for every acre foot to be used. The relinquished amounts would become special water rights that could not be canceled or abandoned; rather, if a developer wanted to purchase a water right, he could look to the relinquished quantity, as a reliable source of water.

King further explained that water rights in excess of what the basin can support in the long term have been issued. The “banking” concept is a method to get those excess water rights “off the books” in an effort to bring the basin into balance.

Though Oscarson says the conversation between lawmakers and the state engineer’s office “are fluid,” he remains largely opposed to many of the proposals. “Giving unlimited authority to the water engineer is not palatable at all,” he said. He also stood firm in the belief that priority water rights stay intact. Though, he said, “Nothing is written in stone and I encourage people to give us input.”

Oscarson said he believes the state engineer has been proactive in his approach to conservation efforts and looks forward to further examination of water use impacts. King said the water problem in Pahrump, “Is not where we are today, but where we are headed.”

Goicoechea foresees a struggle with the passage of both bills in their current form. Though restrictive legislation is just one way to address the projected water shortage, he would like to see other measures, such as desalination projects, considered.

Oscarson said he would like to see aquifer water reserved for use in its basin of origination, as a conservation measure.

Goicoechea has a “placeholder” bill reserved for consideration of other water conservation measures, but must have bill language in place by Feb. 16.

Testimony and hearings on both bills are scheduled for Feb. 11. Both Goicoechea and Oscarson encourage all stakeholders to contact their offices with input on the bills as well as other water conservation and basin-balancing proposals.

Comments on proposed Senate Bills 65 and 81 can be made and the bills can be tracked at www.leg.state.nv.us/Session/78th2015/.

Goicoechea said, “It’s going to take a real effort by all of us to resolve this and we are looking forward to working together.”

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