The first big water fight has broken out at the Legislature.
A pair of bills that would essentially increase the power of the state engineer in various forms of water conflicts — such as between senior and junior rights holders or groundwater and surface water users — drew concerns from opponents that the bills would give too much power to the engineer, while state officials said the changes are necessary for water management in the state.
The two bills — ABs 30 and 51 — would allow the state engineer to create mitigation plans for conflicts in water usage and to levy special assessments to help with the conjunctive management of groundwater and surface water, respectively.
Currently, the state engineer’s office must deny any application if there is no unappropriated water at the site of the application. Bradley Crowell, the director of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said there are conflicting provisions in this scenario — one that would require the office to deny the application and one that would allow the department to create a 3M — monitoring, management and mitigation — plan to solve the conflict.
“If we take one route, we get sued by people who think we should’ve taken the other route. If we take the ‘no’ route, we get sued by people who think we should’ve taken the mitigation route,” Crowell said. “So, we’re stuck in a lose-lose situation from a management perspective.”
Tim Wilson, the state engineer, downplayed concerns of the bills’ environmental impact, stating his office would be obliged to decline water requests that would be detrimental to the environment.
“This cannot be used in any way to go around and dry up springs,” he said. “It’s not going to happen. Those applications would have to be denied.”
The bills’ many opponents, which included Native American groups, the Great Basin Water Network and Nevada Farm Bureau, expressed concerns over the impact the bills would have on Nevada water law.
Rupert Steel, the chairman of the Confederate Tribes of the Goshute, opposed the bill on the grounds that it may damage Nevada’s swamp cedar population. The swamp cedars are actually Rocky Mountain Junipers, and are sacred to the Shoshone.
“The language in the bills sound attractive — deceptively so,” he said. “But behind the language is another side that would help lay ruin to one of Nevada’s great cultural and historic resources.”
Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, spoke out forcefully against the measure and raised concerns about junior rights applicants being able to pay their way to water through the proposed mitigation plans.
“This bill upends Nevada law as we know it and attacks the prior appropriation doctrine,” he said.
No action was taken on either bill.