Associated Press

RENO—Proposed laws to give Nevada’s top water officer more flexibility in water rights disputes drew a groundswell of opposition in their first airings in the state Legislature.

Farmers, conservationists and American Indians from Nevada and Utah turned out against two bills while no one spoke in support during hearings Wednesday before the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, Agriculture and Mining.

The Reno Gazette Journal reports that lawmakers didn’t vote on either bill. But several members, both Democratic and Republican, asked questions suggesting they were skeptical of the plans they heard.

Critics said the measures would concentrate too much power in the state engineer, who could allow more water to go to urban and suburban development at the expense of the environment in rural valleys.

AB30 would boost the state engineer’s authority to resolve water rights conflicts through so-called 3M agreements, or monitoring, management and mitigation.

AB51 would give the state engineer more options to resolve conflicts about underground and surface water.

The bills are sponsored by the Division of Water Resources, which one official said is “stuck in a lose-lose situation.”

Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources chief Bradley Crowell, who oversees the division, said prior Legislatures put pressure on water managers to use 3M plans when water is available, but current water law still requires denial of water rights applications when conflicts exist.

Opponents fear the state engineer could use broader power to let the Southern Nevada Water Authority advance a long-fought proposal to pump groundwater from arid eastern Nevada valleys near the Utah state line and pipe it to Las Vegas.

Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Goshute, based in both states, said he’s worried about the future of swamp cedar plants that are important to tribal people.

Former State Engineer Jason King last year denied groundwater rights to the water authority, citing projections that pumping would threaten lush meadows and swamp cedars in the Spring Valley area that are designated as a critical environmental concern. The water authority is appealing that decision.

Rob McDougal, a commissioner in rural Pershing County, said the agricultural economy around Lovelock relies on laws putting water management firmly in control of senior water rights holders.

Monitoring, management and mitigation plans, as proposed, would allow for resolving conflicts with money.

Norman Frey, a farmer from Fallon, said that could put individual farmers at a financial disadvantage because plans are complex and require consultants.

“We don’t have the expertise, that expertise needs to be hired,” Frey said. “It is very, very expensive.”

Conservationists said both bills lacked provisions to ensure future water deals wouldn’t harm land or wildlife.

Laurel Saito, Nevada water program director for The Nature Conservancy, said some of the 170 species endemic to the state are found nowhere else in the world and that it could be difficult to replicate their living conditions if the environment is harmed.