By Kyle Roernik

Special to the Times

This week, Southern Nevada Water Authority Board members will ask Clark County Commissioners to continue a tax that has provided funding for the water authority’s operations in Eastern Nevada.

Known as the quarter-cent sales tax, the money is designed to help pay for conservation projects and major infrastructure such as the SNWA’s third intake — referred to as the “third straw” — in Lake Mead. 

Since 1998, the tax has collected more than $1.4 billion, and SNWA wants to continue collecting those funds into the future. But SNWA’s quarter-cent sales tax expenditures on pricey ranches and livestock operations have drawn questions and concerns from the Great Basin Water Network and others.  

The Great Basin Water Network requested a detailed accounting of how the water authority spends quarter-cent sales tax dollars earlier this year, but SNWA did not immediately respond to the Network’s January request. 

The Great Basin Water Network followed up by filing an official records request in order to see how Clark County tax dollars are being spent on ranching operations in Eastern Nevada. The records will not be available prior to the SNWA’s board actions this week.  

The measure comes as SNWA and the Great Basin Water Network continue to fight in court over the merits of the water authority’s Groundwater Development Plan, which includes using the ranches in order to obtain and maintain water rights necessary for building a 300-mile, $15.5 billion pipeline from White Pine County to Las Vegas. 

A case challenging SNWA’s plans is currently in Nevada’s Seventh Judicial District Court. Oral arguments will be held in Ely on Nov. 12.

The quarter-cent battle exemplifies the latest round in a battle that’s as much about water as it is about good governance. 

The Great Basin Water Network and other pipeline opponents have questioned how much money Las Vegas ratepayers and taxpayers have spent on the seven ranching operations SNWA owns in Eastern Nevada and accused the water authority of hiding all the facts about its rural holdings. 

“Clark County tax dollars should not be spent on a pipeline project that will destroy the economy, ecosystems, and way of life in the Great Basin,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. “We believe that money designated for conservation and infrastructure projects in Clark County should stay in Clark County. To be clear: Our issue here isn’t about SNWA’s efforts to implement conservation. We are concerned about the lack of transparency regarding the use of public funds.”

In 1997, state lawmakers passed a bill that gave counties the option to impose a quarter-cent sales tax. Clark County Commissioners, rather than voting on the measure outright, put the sales tax question on the ballot and Southern Nevada voters approved the measure to provide tax money for water conservation in 1998.

The law requires the Clark County Commission to review “the necessity for the continued imposition of the tax authorized pursuant to [the law] at least once every 10 years,” according to the Nevada Revised Statutes. 

The last time the commission voted to reauthorize the tax was in December 2008. 

At that meeting, former SNWA General Manager Pat Mulroy told commissioners that quarter-cent sales tax money helped fund the water authority’s operations in Eastern Nevada. The law currently states that the tax must sunset in 2025 or after it has collected $2.3 billion, whichever comes first.