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Drought panel told there’s forage, not water on Nevada range

Wed, Aug 19, 2015 (3:47 p.m.)

Northern Nevada ranchers told a panel studying ongoing regional drought on Wednesday that there's a bumper crop of grass on the open range, and they want to be allowed to turn more cattle out to graze on it.

Accounts of rains in recent months bringing wildflowers to northern parts of the state surfaced during a Nevada Drought Forum hosted by the state Department of Agriculture in Sparks.

Ranchers also aired complaints about federal land managers sticking to national drought plans instead of letting ranchers graze their full allotment of permitted cattle.

"We're not drought-deniers," Eureka County natural resources manager Jake Tibbitts said. "A lot of old-timers and folks talk about abundant forage and nothing to drink for the cows."

David Stix Jr., a Fernley rancher and president-elect of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies move too slowly to adapt to changes in the weather. He said wildfires could end up claiming what cows don't eat.

"No one would have predicted that we'd have the amount of rainfall we did," Stix conceded. But, "they won't let us go back and increase our numbers to permit limits to take care of the vegetation. Fires are probably going to consume that."

BLM spokesman Greg Deimel in Elko said later that resource managers try to balance ranchers' requests with the amount of forage and water on the range of the driest state in the nation.

Nevada averages just 9.5 inches of rainfall per year. New York gets almost 42 inches. California usually gets about 22 inches, but is also in the grip of a regional drought that has lasted 15 years.

"We work with permittees on a constant basis," Deimel said. "We make adjustments based on weather and growth in grasses and shrubs that cows and wildlife eat. And we have to have enough for wildlife to survive the winter."

The Drought Forum meeting was shared by closed-circuit videoconference with Nevada Department of Agriculture offices in Las Vegas and Elko, and Cooperative Extension offices in Elko and 12 other communities around the state.

State Climatologist Douglas Boyle reported the summer has been wetter than usual, but mountain snowpack was below-normal last winter.

Boyle noted that 2014 was, by many accounts, the warmest calendar year on record.

He also pointed to uncertain projections suggesting wet weather in coming months due to El Nino patterns in the Pacific Ocean.

"Our water year for most of the state is at- or near-normal," Boyle said. But crucial mountain snowpack that melts to replenish groundwater supplies was just 70 percent of normal last winter, he said.

That's bad news for parts of northern Nevada, said Benny Hodges, manager of the Pershing County Water District. He said 100 percent of the water used for irrigation in the Lovelock Valley and the Humboldt River basin comes from surface water.

"We're probably going through one of our worst droughts on record," Hodges said.

He said groundwater in his region is promised to more users than it can supply, and he pointed to problems caused by mines pumping underground water out of pits or letting pits refill with water when mining stops.

A study by Reno hydrologist Tom Myers, commissioned by The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada interest group and submitted to the panel, found that vast amounts of water have been pumped to keep open-air pits and underground gold mines dry.

It suggests so-called mine dewatering may dry up springs and lead to changes in stream flows in the Humboldt River basin. It says large amounts of water also evaporate, unused, from huge open pit lakes.

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval created the drought panel in April to consider ways to deal with the record regional dry spell now in its 15th year. Members heard from businesses last month in Las Vegas.

It'll be the final information-gathering session ahead of a Carson City drought summit in September.

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