A controversial bill that would have drastically changed state water law apparently has been scuttled for this session of the Legislature.

Gov. Steve Sisolak said no consensus on the bill could be reached by the time the session ends this week and state water regulators should put together a panel to study the matter prior to the next session, according to The Nevada Independent.

Opponents of Assembly Bill 30 said it would have eroded the foundation of our current water law that protects senior water rights holders and the environment as well.

Existing law requires the State Engineer, who is assigned the task of regulating water appropriations, to reject an application for a permit to take water if there is no unappropriated water at the source or if the proposed use conflicts with existing water rights in wells, springs or streams. AB30 would have allowed the State Engineer to authorize a new water use if an adequate monitoring, management and mitigation plan — known as 3M — is reached.

Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, which has been fighting for years an effort by the Las Vegas water district to pump groundwater from valleys in Eastern Nevada, said the bill was just a way for deep pocketed interests to get water.

“We are pleased at AB30’s demise and committed to working with all stakeholders on policy,” Roerink said. “But we will never compromise on the pipeline or any nefarious attempts to undermine the law. No part of the state should be viewed as a water colony or sacrificial lamb for another part of Nevada.”

He explained the problem with the bill as written, “The real key distinction is that, if you’re avoiding a conflict that means a conflict never happened, but if you are eliminating a conflict that means you’re allowing the state engineer to grant a permit when a conflict exists and say, well, we’ll grant the permit and you go ahead and you start and we’ll figure out how to eliminate the conflict, but go ahead. Start pumping.”

Efforts to change the water law have been ongoing since the state Supreme Court in 2015 ruled that the state water law says the State Engineer “shall reject” an application for use of water when the use “conflicts with existing rights.” The court also said there was insufficient evidence that mitigation efforts would eliminate the threat to the existing rights holders.

The case involved an application for water rights for a molybdenum mine in Eureka County. Just this past week the mining company and local ranchers announced an agreement to allow the mine to access water in return for a $1 million payment, pending approval by the State Engineer.

That’s how such conflicts should be settled. Let the free market decide the value and distribution of water from the original owners to others.

Meanwhile, any panel that works on this topic should keep in mind that estimates about available water resources and the effectiveness of mitigation efforts are difficult to pen down. 

For example, after the State Engineer granted the Las Vegas water authority permits for groundwater in several valleys in Eastern Nevada by creating a 3M plan, a state judge tossed the permit, saying, “There are no objective standards to determine when mitigation will be required and implemented. The Engineer has listed what mitigation efforts can possibly be made, i.e., stop pumping, modifying pumping, change location of pumps, drill new wells … but does not cite objective standards of when mitigation is necessary.”

In a recent op-ed in the Reno newspaper, Mark Butler, the retired superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park, and Alan O’Neill, the retired superintendent of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, said the use of 3M plans jeopardize fragile ecosystems that pronghorn, bighorn sheep, mule deer, desert tortoises and other creatures call home. 

“We are not opposed to the state engineer permitting water and seeking to modernize water law,” the retirees wrote. “However, we are opposed to the state engineer unilaterally permitting water projects that do not adequately account for natural recharge and that fail to consider the intrinsic value of leaving water in the ground for the benefit of future generations.”

Be cautious of making changes to water law that could affect current rights holders and lead to the draw down of water tables that might take centuries to replenish — long after vegetation and wildlife have disappeared. — TM

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