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On the Water Front: A Conversation with Kevin Brown on the Virgin Valley Water District

As General Manager of the Virgin Valley Water District (VVWD), Kevin Brown oversees the organization that’s responsible for keeping the taps running for some customers. However, one very large and important customer is now taking VVWD to court over the district’s push to charge them and other local golf courses a higher rate. Wolf Creek may be calling foul, but Brown says it’s the golf course that’s engaging in foul play.

Below, I speak more with Kevin Brown about the Wolf Creek lawsuit, VVWD’s lease agreement with Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), and what VVWD is doing to ensure all local customers can continue to find water running in their taps.

“We have a significant amount of water rights that we paid money for.”
– Kevin Brown, Virgin Valley Water District
Photo by Andrew Davey

At Tuesday night’s Virgin Valley Water District board meeting, the board decided to explore the possibility of filing an amicus brief in support of the Walker River Irrigation District in Mineral County’s lawsuit against them. Why’s that? According to Kevin Brown, “They’re indicating that the base law, in terms of water rights in Nevada, would be changed so that if there’s a need that would supersede the water rights, it could be taken away without compensation. We have a significant amount of water rights that we paid money for.”

At issue in the Walker River suit is whether the State of Nevada must ensure more water flows to Walker Lake in Mineral County due to an obligation under the public trust doctrine that states water must be preserved and maintained for public use. As a result of a Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruling in May, the Nevada Supreme Court will soon have to decide what exactly is required under the public trust doctrine.

So why would VVWD intervene in a case involving a body of water on the other end of the state? According to Brown, “My hope would be that [the Nevada Supreme Court] leave things the way they are.” He then promised that staff will do their research and “due diligence” before presenting a final proposal to the board.

“We’re one of the fastest growing communities in Nevada. We’ve got to provide water to our customers. That’s our priority.”
– Kevin Brown
Photo by Andrew Davey

At Tuesday’s meeting, Nevada Today Managing Editor Mike McGreer noted that VVWD has paid over $12 million for water rights from Mesquite Irrigation District and Bunkerville Irrigation District. Brown confirmed that figure is correct. But while McGreer questioned why VVWD would pay private shareholders for what should be a public resource, Brown sees this arrangement as necessary to ensure the region has enough water for all residents and businesses.

According to Brown, “We’re growing at about a 5% rate. We’re one of the fastest growing communities in Nevada. We’ve got to provide water to our customers. That’s our priority.”

So then, what about VVWD’s lease agreement with SNWA that allows SNWA to remove Virgin River water from the Virgin Valley in order in order to maintain a surplus reserve in Lake Mead? For Brown, “I think it’s been working very well. We’ve got an asset we’re not using for its current intended purpose.”

Though Brown noted that he wasn’t present when the agreement was first struck, he’s content with how it’s operating now. As Brown said, “It meets a need for them in creating surplus water for Lake Mead and the Colorado River Compact.” But wait, what about the needs of local water users?

“Those shares are worth more money now. They should pay more for these shares, just as the rest of the stakeholders are.”
– Kevin Brown
Photo by Andrew Davey

We then discussed the big issue at Wolf Creek, as Wolf Creek’s lawyers allege in their suit that VVWD is trying to force Wolf Creek to lease recycled water at the 500% higher rate SNWA is willing to pay. Brown confirmed that VVWD wants Wolf Creek to pay more, but he stated the district’s desired rate is “not necessarily the same rate at SNWA, but more than they’re paying now.”

Brown then pointed to Conestoga Golf Club’s agreement with the district where Conestoga will gradually pay higher rates until they near that of the SNWA lease. As for whether VVWD is willing to offer a similar deal to Wolf Creek, Brown said, “Possibly. We made that offer several months ago. They declined to participate.”

Brown then added, “We feel that we have a resource that Wolf Creek has benefitted from over the past eight years by paying a subprime amount of lease for. Those shares are worth more money now. They should pay more for these shares, just as the rest of the [area businesses] are.”

Brown then framed the dispute this way: “Wolf Creek should pony up, jump on board, and help us out.” He added, “By increasing the amount we receive in our leases, we can make sure we don’t have to raise rates on the rest of our customers.”

“I think the golf courses in general are doing a great job in terms of managing that resource. […] We are really conservation minded already.”

– Kevin Brown

Photo by Andrew Davey

So why would VVWD have to raise rates? Isn’t there enough water for everyone? Or are the golf courses using too much water?

Brown was quick to dismiss the notion that the golf courses are wasting water, saying, “I think the golf courses in general are doing a great job in terms of managing that resource.” He added, “We are really conservation minded already.”

Unlike SNWA, VVWD doesn’t have any mandatory conservation rules. Why not? According to Brown, “Those [green lawns] are few and far between. Newer homes have desert landscapes.” He added that they may eventually “get to that point” of stronger conversation standards, but the current voluntary measures have been working just fine.

“Who knows what climate change will bring in the future? So far, we’re looking pretty steady.”
– Kevin Brown
Photo by Andrew Davey

This leads to perhaps the $12 million question: Does VVWD have enough water for area residents and businesses for the foreseeable future? Brown voiced confidence that the district does: “We modeled it out for the next 30 years. We’ve got it down to the point where we can safely say that we will not have to raise rates more than 1% per year. It may be less than that.”

Brown went on to describe how the district forecasts the future in water: “We have rain gauges to measure precipitation. We also have 15 monitoring wells, and 17 production wells. Our precipitation levels have remained fairly steady, unlike other surrounding areas.”

But what about the drought? Brown admitted that the district’s forecast assumes the area’s precipitation will remain close to where it is now, despite Nevada’s continuing struggles with drought and the possibility of drought becoming “the new normal” for the American West: “Who knows what climate change will bring in the future? So far, we’re looking pretty steady.” He then added, “We expect El Niño to hit this winter, giving us a wetter than normal winter rain season.”

Editor’s Note: Managing Editor Mike McGreer offered his personal take on the state of the Virgin Valley Water District at Tuesday night’s board meeting. This is from my conversation with General Manager Kevin Brown the following morning. Stay tuned next week for our conversation with a former VVWD board member who takes us inside the inner workings of the district and shares her account of what led to the district’s current legal trouble with Wolf Creek.

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