Nevada State Engineer Jason King said Tuesday he hoped Nye County would have acted by now on his comments last October about the possibility of setting up a plan to avoid designating Pahrump a critical management area due to the over-appropriation of water under a new state law.
Assembly Bill 419 passed in the 2011 Legislature allowing the state engineer to designate a groundwater basin a critical management area if withdrawals of groundwater exceed perennial yield. A petition could be signed by a majority of holders of permits to appropriate water to set up a groundwater management plan, setting up steps to remove that designation. If a groundwater basin is designated a critical management area for at least 10 years, the state engineer has the right to take a drastic step: limiting groundwater withdrawals, including from domestic wells, by order of priority rights.
The state estimates Pahrump gets a recharge of 12,000 acre feet of water annually, but there are 62,540 acre feet of permitted water rights in the valley, not counting 11,106 domestic wells. Then there’s the potential for another 8,500 wells to be drilled, based on current land use.
King said when the legislation was drafted, authors were focusing on basins like Pahrump, as well as Diamond Valley near Eureka and several others.
After his presentation last October at the Bob Ruud Community Center, King said, “we were hoping it would be compelling enough and it got to enough water right stakeholders that they would understand our office was looking at a critical management basin potential in Pahrump Valley.”
“We want to turn things around so we can bring the basin in balance. It took a long time to get the basin out of balance. It’s going to take a long time to get the basin in balance,” he said.
If the state engineer was set to designate water allocations by priority, Pahrump Valley already had enough water rights to equal the 12,000 acre feet of recharge in 1943.
But King gave some relief to water users worried about such a drastic measure. He said “I can foresee a plan that has a 50 to 75-year planning horizon. It’s not that you’re going to turn it around in a couple of years.”
The possible 8,500 wells added to the 11,000 already in existence adds up to 20,000 possible domestic wells in Pahrump Valley. “If you pump two acre feet for every domestic well it’s about 40,000 acre feet. Clearly we have a problem. Doing nothing is not an option,” King said.
County Commission Chairman Butch Borasky said he has a meter on the well at his residence and has only been using a quarter acre-foot of water per year. That was part of a volunteer program set up by the water district to gauge how much water usage there has been from private wells in the valley. King said by statute a domestic well is allowed to take two acre feet per year.
King conceded water levels aren’t dropping nearly as fast as during the 1970s and early 1980s, when there was extensive irrigation in Pahrump Valley. In 2011, users pumped 13,352 acre feet of water; Utilities Inc. used 3,490 acre feet. Another 5,553 acre feet of domestic use was not in the Utilities Inc. service area; there was 2,442 acre feet for irrigation and 1,179 acre feet for commercial and other uses.
But King said, “we believe the time is right to do something now. Why wait until the pumping goes back up? Let’s be in a proactive mode.”
Judith Holmgren questioned the estimate there would be 8,500 new wells. Kenny Bent said there were only seven new wells drilled in 2011 and one well was plugged.
“Our office identified parcels within the basin that could actually develop a domestic well, could actually drill one and it was just looking at land use,” King replied.
Water board member Donna Lamm said, “if we ignore the fact there are another 8,500 potential water wells in this valley that’s like ignoring the weather warning there’s a hurricane on the way.”
The state engineer had some suggestions for a Pahrump water management plan that would emphasize conservation.
“Probably what would happen we should say there should be no outdoor watering from a domestic well, it would be for indoor use,” King said. “I would hope that would be part of the groundwater management plan.”
County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen questioned the figures used to calculate 12,000 acre feet of recharge. King said that would be the recharge after evaporation. County consultants estimate there’s 17,000 acre feet of infiltration.
Amargosa Valley Town Board member John Bosta said the language in AB 419 asking for a majority of water right permit holders to approve the designation of a critical management basin excludes domestic well owners. King said the language should be changed in the legislation to reflect that.
Nye County Interim Community Development Director Darrell Lacy said the possible maximum buildout of Pahrump Valley with current zoning would allow a population of 495,000 people.
“We know that’s not realistic. We don’t have the water to deal with that. The master plan updates are going to have to address some of that. It’s not necessarily going to be easy,” Lacy said.
He said the county needs to find 5,000 acre feet for importation from another groundwater basin.
“You all received a letter from the town board of Amargosa basically telling us keep your hands off our water. The intent was primarily water from the Nevada Test Site,” Lacy said. But he said the U.S. Department of Energy denied Nye County access to wells on the test site, now known as the Nevada National Security Site.
Borasky said, “future importation, I have no idea why we’d even want to look at that right now. That’s something developers would have to look at if they want to build.”
Water board member Roberta “Midge” Carver said, “importing water was the last thing I thought of when this board was formed. You have to live within your resources.”
Bosta said he sent to the county commissioners, water board and the state engineer, informing them the water in the Amargosa Valley groundwater basin is for their use only. He said their groundwater basin doesn’t have any excess water.
Commissioner Donna Cox said, “there shouldn’t be a police force waiting around to take our water.” She was concerned about driving away business because of water issues.