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FROM THE EDITOR: Battles over water started with the west’s settlement

I had no idea when I arrived in Pahrump in early October I’d have to do so much learning about water issues.

Since reporter Lillian Browne arrived last month, this newspaper has put an increased focus on water issues.

One thing seems to be clear: no one can tell the newspaper definitively how much water is underneath the valley.

You ask five people, you’ll get five varying answers.

Like most everyone I know, I read the great book, “Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water,” when it was released in 1986 and updated nearly 22 years ago. Even after all this time, it is still the standard of investigative reporting in how water issues shape western states and communities.

While the book focuses on the history of the Bureau of Reclamation (hello Lake Mead), and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, much of development policies driven by the desire for development — i.e. over-allocation of water rights sound familiar having negative impacts on water quantity and quality.

Move ahead nearly 30 years to the Pahrump Valley. A lively discussion was had Tuesday before the County Commission during a presentation by the Pahrump Basin Groundwater Management Plan Committee, which presented a proposed 11-item priority list for protecting the water that is here.

That list was down from nearly 180.

The committee is working to craft a management plan for many reasons including avoiding a potential critical management area designation, which in part would allow state officials to curtail future development by taking priority rights through further water consumption restrictions.

Suggestions include use of wells for noncommercial only, removing parcels from the county tax rolls scheduled to be sold, plans for parceling and relinquishment of water rights for development, a master plan update which includes numerous water conservation components, and most contentious, the idea of installating meters on new domestic wells.

The commission was told that county data shows water levels rising on the alluvial fan of the aquifer, while certain areas of the valley floor show levels are falling.

But without well level data, the commission may find it hard to make decisions.

The committee’s work is far from done. The body that was selected for a six-month time frame got extended to a year. Now the commission is discussing the possibility of the body being a continual committee.

All this discussion is because the Nevada Division of Water Resources Engineer Jason King is waiting for the groundwater management plan, even though the valley has not been designated a critical management area, yet, so he can’t demand it under current state law.

The state claims it wants the county to participate in solving its own water problems because local officials should have a better understanding of what usage is important to Pahrump Valley users.

Basically, the water engineer is telling us down here in not so many words, fix your water issues or someone will fix it for you.

That’s where the discussion has moved to Carson City, where Senate Bills 65 and 81 are catching lively discussion.

The state water engineer has proposed an amendment to state water law which would replace the term “critical” with “active,” opening a path, if passed, to have the state take oversight of Pahrump’s water to impose regulations at his discretion.

The state Senate Committee on Government Affairs during a Feb. 11 hearing deemed the bills flawed. Pahrump residents at the hearing opposed the bills, requesting to participate as a workshop committee on the revising of the proposals.

The bills were brought on due to what the state said is extended drought conditions and over-appropriated water rights concerns. I’m not sure how either one of those claims can be disputed.

But without officials clearly understanding and then articulating to residents just how much water is below our feet, any move by a government entity to wrestle control of local water will be a hard fight.

Arnold M. Knightly is the editor of the Pahrump Valley Times.

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