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Nevada Today

Nevada Today is a nonpartisan, independently owned and operated site dedicated to providing up-to-date news and smart analysis on the issues that impact Nevada's communities and businesses.

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On the Water Front: Why Las Vegas’ Future Is Caught in the Middle of the Wolf Creek v. Virgin Valley Water District Dispute

Yesterday, my colleague Mike McGreer reported on another round of court filings in the Wolf Creek lawsuit. On one side, Virgin Valley Water District (VVWD) is pursuing a counterclaim based on several allegations, including VVWD’s ongoing charge that Wolf Creek is not paying a “fair market rate” for water. On the other, Wolf Creek is demanding summary judgment on VVWD’s counterclaim.

Once more, this back-and-forth courtroom battle extends into Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) terrain. And once more, we need to take a closer look to assess the potential collateral damage.

Is it a “fair market rate” if no water goes to market?
Photo by Andrew Davey

Last week, we examined the 2007 agreement among the seven Colorado River Basin states that established the intentionally created surplus (ICS) program that SNWA utilizes to prevent a more severe drop of Lake Mead’s water level. This ICS program forms the basis of SNWA’s lease agreement with VVWD.

And yet, we also uncovered in Wolf Creek’s April 17 court filing an August 9, 2018, letter from SNWA Water Resources Director Colby Pellegrino in which she asks VVWD General Manager Kevin Brown to amend their lease agreement because “accounting impediments and Virgin River Decree issues would prevent SNWA from leasing these shares VVWD believes are unused and available for lease”. In other words, the ICS program requires SNWA to provide the federal government and the six other Colorado River states with monthly updates that show the water reaching Lake Mead. Yet because VVWD did not propose a lease agreement that provides for monthly accounting of its Virgin River water, but rather seasonal “leftover golf course water”, SNWA could not actually exercise this lease.

Letter Obtained by Nevada Today via April 2019 Paradise Canyon Motion for Leave to Amend Complaint filed in District Court

In this new round of court documents, an April 19, 2018, email from SNWA General Counsel Greg Walch and a November 19, 2018, email from Pellegrino provide further confirmation that SNWA has not been able to utilize water that was supposed to be provided under this lease. Again, SNWA officials were requesting a revised lease agreement for monthly water transfer and/or direct transfer of VVWD’s unused MIC water shares to SNWA rather than SNWA essentially receiving “leftover golf course water” that’s harder to track.

So if SNWA couldn’t use any of the water that VVWD was offering, does this lease agreement truly set any kind of “fair market rate”?

Behind the complex network of acronyms lies a very simple question
Photo by Andrew Davey

Thus far, SNWA has declined to comment on the Wolf Creek case. Considering what’s at stake in this case, we can see why they may prefer to stay on the sidelines (at least, in public).

Right now, the Colorado River is governed by an intricate and very delicate patchwork of “sidebar agreements” to supplement the Colorado River Compact of 1922 that was written long before climate change entered our lexicon, and long before the American West began its rapid urbanization. We may now have a new drought contingency plan (DCP) for the entire basin, but we’ve yet to see larger reforms to the original 1922 Compact, so we’re still subject to the same intricate and very delicate patchwork of “sidebar agreements”

The good news for Southern Nevada is that we continue to use far less than our (already tiny) allotment of Colorado River/Lake Mead water, so we are nowhere near a water crisis… So long as we continue to keep our water use this low. The bad news for Southern Nevada is that far too many of our political and business leaders continue to skirt questions about our future development. And unless and until we address this core issue of how we grow and where we develop, the future of Las Vegas may continue to be caught in the middle of this dispute between a water district and a golf course in Mesquite.

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