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Beware of a Water Board bearing gifts (Part1 of 2)

Mesquite, NV. March 7. When elected officials want to convince the public of their good intentions, they outsource strategies to contractors. Outsourcing allows elected officials to control the information delivered to the public. After all, they only pay for what they want? Government employees refer to this, when done wrong, as giving a contractor your watch and telling you the time.

For example, The Virgin Valley Water District Board (VVWDB), represented by their manager Kevin Brown spends an enormous amount of time telling the public that the domestic water supply from the underground source of Basin (222) is substantial. Such propaganda results in advertisements such as this one from the Mesquite Chamber of Commerce.

Mesquite Chamber of Commerce Advertisement

To support Brown’s claim and other reasons, the VVWDB took their needs out of State and contracted with Glorieta Geosciences (Glorieta) of Santa Fe, NM, to review a series of documents and create a Groundwater Perennial Yield [[1]] budget likely to support what the payer wants.

The contract

The Water Board limited the Glorieta effort to the Perennial Yield of Groundwater. The action is out of scope for the Water Board and inconsistent with Federal and Nevada Water laws and water policies, and the effort ignored climate science. Their action raises ratepayer costs while deliberately or unintentionally misleading the public concerning water availability and sustainability.

The VVWDB contract with Glorieta has two phases. Phase 1 for $45,000 gave the contractor a free list of publications dealing with Basin 222 to review and return to the Water Board with a “perennial yield” impact statement.

At least 79 Nevada-based scientific studies are directly or indirectly related to the Virgin River Valley. Of those 37 dates from the year 2000. Of those, only a few are even remotely of interest. They include:

  1. A 2000 study by Langenheim CE, Glen JM, Jachens R, Dixon GL, Katzer T., Morin RL on the geophysical constraints on the Virgin River Depression in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona,
  2. A 2002 study by CH2M HILL focused on the hydrological aspects of the Tule Desert, including the Virgin River,
  3. A 2002 study by Dixon, GL, and Katzer on the geology and hydrology of the lower Virgin River Valley in Nevada, Arizona, and Utah,
  4. A 2002 study by Johnson M., Dixon, Gl, Rowley PD, Katzer TC, and Winters M. on the conditions of the formation of the lower Virgin River Basin and,
  5. Another study done in 2002 by Katzer T, Dixon GL, Johnson M (2002) deals with water-resource development in Tule Desert, Lincoln County, Nevada, on the water resources of the lower Virgin River Valley, Clark Country, Nevada.

None of these studies dealt with the impact of the drought  on Virgin River Valley, especially since 2013 forward. ([i])

Nevada Climate Change

On the surface, a lack of current scientific data would suggest the need for the Glorieta effort. However, focusing on the underground perennial Yield is inconsistent with Nevada’s water law and policy. The action also ignores The 2007 Department of Interior Bureau of Reclamation Drought Contingency Plan for the Colorado River and the impact its tributaries.

It is true that in 2017 at a meeting of the Nevada legislature Committee on Natural resources and Mining, Jason King, then the Nevada Water Engineer, Said

“It is the general policy of the State Engineer to limit Groundwater withdrawals from a basin to the average annual recharge to the Groundwater basin or its perennial yield.”

However,  on June 9, 2017, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, R, signed Senate Bill 47.[iii] That legislation required the State Water Engineer to prepare a “water budget” for Groundwater and manage that water source “conjunctively” [[2]] with surface water.

Following up on the Governors legislation on June 29, 2018, in a briefing to Legislative Committee on Public Lands,  King, said, “The goal is not to allow the consumptive use of Groundwater rights and domestic wells; to exceed the basin’s perennial yield.”

And on July 25, 2017, Timber Weiss, a water resource specialist for the Division of Water Resources, warned the Virgin Valley Water District Board (VVWDB) that the perennial Yield from local Basin 222 is only 3,600 Acre Feet Yearly (AFY). He asked that they justify 102 water applications on file with the Division for water from Nevada Hydrographic Basin 222.

Then King got to the problem when on January 30, 2018, during a Nevada water Law Summit, he said that: “Most (Basins) was already over appropriated before the Perennial Yield (P.Y.) being established.” He noted that “Popular thinking that not all rights would be put to their maximum beneficial use, so it was acceptable to over‐appropriate.

Nonetheless, in 2019, Governor Steve Sisolak, D,  signed into law SB150. That statute required a county or city government to develop a water resource plan that analyzes existing water demand in the community. SB150 requires these branches of government to identify “all known sources of surface water, that are physically and legally available for use in the community.”

And in 2020, Tim Wilson, who replaced King for a short time, said Nevada water Law does not mandate calculating the perennial Yield for water rights administration. ([ii])

SB150 does allow a local water district to conduct the planning for the community. But they must do so according to state and federal water laws and regulations where applicable.

The VVWDB-Glorieta Geosciences effort directly challenges an all-source conjunctive water effort required by the Mesquite City Council to understand the impact of their water demand and follow state and federal mandates. Further, their joint action intentionally or not inhibits the ability of the Nevada Water Engineer to both set a contemporary water budget as the legislature intended by passing  S.B. 150 and S.B. 47

Regardless of the Cities need, on Tuesday, February 15, representatives of Glorieta presented the Water Board with their $45,000 analysis. The Glorieta team reminded them of a 1968 reconnaissance report 51 ([iii]) by United States Geological Survey (USGS) scientists Glancy and Van Denburgh. That work established the Groundwater Perennial Yield for Basin 222, at 3,600 Acre Feet Yearly (AFY). [[3]]

The Glancy and Van Denburgh effort set Basin 221 and 222 System Yield (a conjunctive amount) at 100,000 AFY. ([iv]) And for better or worse, those yields remain in place for Basins 221 and 222.

The Nevada Water engineer has allocated 12,547.95 Acre Feet Yearly (AFY) for Groundwater use from Basin 222. That is 8,947.95 over the approved perennial yield of 3,600 AFY (12,547.95 – 3,600 = 8,947.95).

Pumpage vs. appropriations and perennial Yield

FY 2000 VVDWB actual  (Acre Feet Yearly Annually) Percentages
2000 pumpage 8,684.00 70.77%
Appropriations 12,271.17
Difference 3,587.17 29.23%
pumpage minus 3,600 Perennial Yield overages 5,084 70.81%

Of the 12,547.95, the Nevada Water Engineer granted the VVWDB 12,271.17 AFY. In 2000, the VVWDB pumped 8,684 AF to their service population. That is about 71 percent of their total allocation leaving about 29 % for potential future use.

However, that total is 5,084 AFY (70.81 %) over the approved perennial Yield of 3,600 AFY.

These numbers mean that the VVWDB needs to increase the underground perennial Yield closer to their pumpage rate to keep the water engineer from halting operations.

BCM model 

In a futile attempt to bring pumpage closer to the Yield, Phase two pays Glorieta $200,000 over three years to develop a Basin Characterization Model (BCM) ([v]) model analyzing, over time, the Groundwater recharge (Perennial Yield) from Basin 222, leading to a VVWDB underground “Water Budget.”

By stretching the time span to three years, the VWDB can continue to spin their water tales with a “lets just wait and see” stance. 

There is nothing new about the use of the BCM model. It is one of several models the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has, since the 1960s, developed in their hydrologic and geochemical simulations packages.

More importantly, the USGS used the BCM in its 2010 Conceptual Model of the Great Basin Carbonate and Alluvial (underground) Aquifer as part of their  Groundwater Resources Program. [vi]

The researchers used the BCM to estimate recharge from precipitation developed spatial datasets for estimating historical well withdrawals.

Table 2 2010 USGS BCM run

2010 Conceptual Model of the Great Basin Carbonate and Alluvial Aquifer System 221 and 222.
Comparison of Predevelopment and Recent (2000) Groundwater-Budget Estimate
Recharge Discharge Over
46,000 51,000 5,000

They found that discharge exceeded recharge in Basins 221 and 222 by 5,000 Acre Feet Yearly.

The USGS researchers compared recharge BCM recharge to discharge estimated for each Hydrographic Area (H.A) in the Colorado Groundwater flow system (34) to determine whether the computed recharge estimates were reasonable and if imbalances existed between calculations of subsurface flow, recharge, and discharge.

The scientists point out that the hydraulic gradients potentially connect across hydrographic boundaries. And given the location of significant discharge areas, the Colorado Groundwater flow system can be divided into four separate regions, defined in the current study as the Lake Mead, Muddy River, White River, and Virgin River subareas.

The interconnection suggests that spending money on the Virgin River sub-area without Lake Mead, the Muddy River, and the White River is misleading.

For example, the USGS team found that volcanic nonwelded ash-flow tuffs dominate the high recharge portions of these subareas; one possible explanation for the budget discrepancy is that BCM overestimates saturated hydraulic conductivity of this rock type.

And they found that when comparing  BCM runoff to gaged runoff (total streamflow less baseflow), BCM overestimates runoff by an average of only 10 percent. And they point to two-stream gauges located in the Muddy River and Virgin River Valley subareas where such occurred.

Interestingly they found that the Muddy River and Virgin River Valley subareas do not require additional recharge as subsurface inflow from the northern part of the Colorado Groundwater flow system. This result contrasts with previous studies (Maxey and Eakin, 1949; Welch and others, 2007). Those individuals felt that subsurface inflow to the Muddy and River Valley required Groundwater from the upgradient White River Valley (HA 207) to balance discharge.

The BCS modelers felt that there is unlikely significant subsurface outflow because the southern part of the Colorado Groundwater flow system is at the downgradient end of regional discharge areas. Recharge should balance discharge within uncertainty limits. Therefore, to balance the current study’s water budgets for this Groundwater flow system, BCM in-place recharge and runoff were decreased in the Muddy River and Virgin River Valley subareas by using multiplication factors of 0.29.

It is reasonably clear that the USGS uses the BCM approach and has extensive technical data related not only to Basins 221 and 222 but the entire Great Basin, whereas New Mexico may not.

Basin designations

Before incorporating Mesquite in 1984, on August 18, 1980, Nevada Water Engineer William J. Newman (1979-1981) issued order 793. That order designated Basin 222 as a critical management area. Under that order, withdrawals from domestic wells must conform to a restriction policy. In addition, under NRS 533.370, the State Engineer must refuse to issue the requested permit where:

  • there is no unappropriated water in the proposed source of supply, or
  • its proposed use or change conflicts with existing rights or with protectable interests in existing domestic Wells, or
  • the water right threatens to prove detrimental to the public interest.

It does not matter what Glorieta comes up since on July 15, 2008, Tracy Taylor, Nevada’s Water Engineer, declared that The entire flow of the Colorado River region 13 Virgin River Valley Basin 222 fully appropriated, declaring the Basin closed to new appropriations. ([vii])

Conclusion

Basin 222 is over-allocated and closed to new appropriations. The VVWDB effort to remap the underground water supply with a Santa Fe NM contractor discounts the work already done by Nevada scientists. And the effort does not come close to complying with Water legislation, nor would the action contribute to the development of a “Water Budget by the Nevada Water engineer as required by law. Nor would the effort aid the City Council in meeting its statutory requirement to develop a water resource plan that analyzes existing water demand in the community.

Parts two and three deals with with the dynamic of groupthink and how those individuals socially, politicly, economically, and spiritually aligned shape public policy to the disadvantage of those allegedly served. 

Footnotes 

[1] Perennial Yield means: “the maximum amount of Groundwater that they can salvage each year over the long term without depleting the groundwater reservoir.” That Yield cannot be more than the natural recharge of the groundwater reservoir and is usually limited to the maximum amount of natural discharge.

[2] Conjunctive water management refers to the integrated management of ground and surface water sources in such a way that the benefits of coordinated management of the two water sources exceed the benefits obtained through their separate management.

[3] Glancy and Van Denburg estimate the Virgin River Valley flow to lake Mead at about 123,000acre-feet, provisionally estimated at 2/3 surface water and 1/3 groundwater.

Endnotes

[i] Nevada | Drought.gov

[ii] . Wilson, Tim in email to Michael M. McGreer, Managing Editor, Nevada-today.com June 28,2020.

[iii] Glancy, Patrick A., Van Denburgh, A.S. “Water-resources appraisal of the Lower Virgin River Valley Area, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of Interior, 1969.

[iv] Glancy, et al. pg. 63.

[v] Essentially, it is a mathematical computer model that takes climate inputs such as precipitation and air temperatures and translates the results into translate fine-scale maps of climate trends and projections. This process Yields hydrologic consequences and water availability within a hydrographic area.

[vi] Heilweil, Victor M., and Brooks, Lynette, editors United States Geological Survey, Groundwater Resources Program, Conceptual Model of the Great Basin Carbonate and Alluvial Aquifer System, Scientific Investigations Report 2010-5193.

[vii] In the Office of the State Engineer, of the State of Nevada, order 1193, Regarding Tributary of Conservation Intentionally Created Surplus for the Virgin River paragraph 6 at: http://images.water.nv.gov/images/Orders/1193o.pdf

 

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About Author

Michael McGreer Mesquite, Nevada
Dr. Michael Manford McGreer is managing editor of Nevada-today.com and writes on issues that impact public policy.

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