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New face to join Nye County Water District Governing Board

For anyone who has been following the water issues in Nye County over the years, it is no secret that the Nye County Water District and its associated governing board are sources of contention and fierce debate among not just the public but the members of the Nye County Commission as well.

Recently, the commission tackled an agenda item regarding the appointment of five members to the water board and the 45-minute discussion was rife with tension, frustration and discord. Particularly controversial parts of the water board’s history were brought to center stage, including topics such as the water board’s request that led to the issuance of Nevada State Engineer Order #1293 and #1293A, the 2017 legislative session’s Senate Bill 21 that aimed to kill the water board and the water board’s attempt to hike the per-parcel fee that funds the water district’s operations, as the commissioners wrangled over the board appointments.

Kicking off the item on July 7 was Nye County Commissioner Debra Strickland, who is the commission liaison to the water board. The pool of applicants included four of the current water board members, along with former Nye County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen and Private Well Owners Cooperative of Nye County board member Helene Williams. Strickland made a motion to select each of the four current members, including Joseph Westerlund, William Knecht, Dennis Gaddy and David Hall, as well as Williams, for the five positions available.

There was a pause of silence following that motion but eventually, commissioner Donna Cox offered a second, noting that she had done so for discussion purposes.

Commissioner Leo Blundo then interjected to state that he felt it would be appropriate to table the item for the time being and reopen the application process, as he believed the more applicants, the better. At the same time, he remarked that because of the controversial nature of the board and the public sentiment, which trends against that board, he would like to entertain the idea of the commissioners taking over as members of the water board themselves.

However, that concept drew only minimal support, with just Cox expressing interest in the possibility. Other commissioners, including Strickland and chair John Koenig, said they were wary of such an action because that would leave the public with little recourse in the way of appealing any decision taken by the commissioners sitting as the water board.

“If someone wants to object to a decision made, they have no one to come back to,” Koenig stated. “Right now, if they don’t like something the water board does, they can appeal to us. If we are the water board, they have no one to appeal to.”

Commissioner Lorinda Wichman jumped in to add that one of the reasons the water board was formed in the first place was so that the commissioners would no longer have to handle water issues, which in the past had taken an enormous amount of the commission’s time and attention.

Cox then turned the conversation to Senate Bill 21, which called for the disbanding of the water board. That bill never made it to a vote by the assembly committee tasked with handling it and therefore it died, a point that irritates Cox to this day and one for which she has openly blamed Wichman and former commissioner Schinhofen. The subject naturally sparked a spar between Cox and Wichman, who was one of the two commissioners who did not approve of the attempt to dismantle the water board in 2017.

“I was the person, along with Kenny Bent, that put together SB21 and I did that for a very good reason,” Cox said during the July 7 meeting. “So here we are today, because certain letters were written to certain people and not because it (SB21) failed but because it was never taken out of the drawer at the assembly level, because of things that were going on behind our back,” Cox said, referring to letters penned by Wichman and Schinhofen to the Nevada Legislature expressing their reservations with Senate Bill 21, letters Wichman said were simply minority reports that had no impact on the outcome of the bill.

Wichman then explained what she believed had happened with Senate Bill 21, telling Cox, “Your friend Ed Goedhart (former Nevada assemblyman who backed SB21) pissed off Heidi Swank (then chair of the assembly committee on natural resources) to the point that she took the bill, put it in the bottom drawer and slammed that sucker shut, so it would never get out of there,” Wichman proclaimed. Koenig added, “And then she locked it.”

Cox also honed in on two other contentious actions of the water board as reason for her reluctance to move forward with the item that day, including Order #1293 and the water board’s vote to raise its per-parcel fee.

Order #1293, which restricts the drilling of new domestic wells in Pahrump unless water rights are relinquished in support of that well, was a product of a request made by the water board in 2017. That order is currently under legal challenge and the lawsuit is awaiting a decision by the Nevada Supreme Court. The raise in the per-parcel fee charged to all Pahrump properties from $5 per year to $35 per year that the water board approved in December of last year was also challenged by the public and was appealed to the Nye County Commission, which overturned the decision early this year.

“We are elected officials and we should have the final say on everything that goes in front of the water board. We shouldn’t be only consulted when it has gotten to such a point that there is a big fight out in the public and we have to solve the issue,” Cox said regarding the per parcel fee hike. “It should be solved before we get to that point.”

Cox said she was not happy with the people who were currently water board members and she didn’t believe any of them should be reappointed. She then withdrew her second, leaving Strickland’s motion hanging until Wichman put forward a second of her own.

In the end, however, all five commissioners ultimately voted in favor of the motion to appoint Williams for her first term as a water board member and to re-appoint Westerlund, Knecht, Gaddy and Hall.

Contact reporter Robin Hebrock at rhebrock@pvtimes.com

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