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Litigation or Mitigation: Notes on the Nevada Legislature’s First Hearing on AB 30 and the Great SNWA Pipeline Fight

Earlier today, the Nevada Legislature held its first hearing on two bills that have the potential to breathe new life into the long-stalled pipeline that Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) wants to build into Eastern Nevada to divert water to Las Vegas. State officials framed perhaps the one key bill at the heart of its package as “courage”, “clarity”, and “mitigation”. One of the opponents retorted, “If there’s no conflict, there’s no need for mitigation.”

So what else was said? And more importantly, what might legislators actually do? Let’s review tonight’s hearing for clues.

“Taking action will require both courage and shared sacrifice […] The status quo is not an option.”
– Bradley Crowell, Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Last week, we took a closer look at a group of water bills that have been introduced in the Nevada Legislature. This week, the Assembly Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Mining (NRAM) Committee has begun moving two of these bills: AB 30 and AB 51. Both bills were pre-filed by the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) last November, and DCNR Director Bradley Crowell and Acting State Engineer Tim Wilson showed up for today’s NRAM hearing to explain why these bills are necessary.

Crowell devoted his opening statement to making the case for AB 30 as he noted, “Nevada has been one of the driest states in the nation. Nevada is also one of the fastest growing states in the nation.” He then added, “Climate change is real. It is our responsibility to take that into account as we manage our limited water resources.”

Crowell then noted the very real potential for federal intervention to cut states’ Colorado River water allotment as he pointed towards the need for change in Nevada’s water law. He declared, “Taking action will require both courage and shared sacrifice […] to ensure sustainable water resources for all of Nevada.” He also declared, “The status quo is not an option.”

“The intent of AB 30 is to add needed clarity to existing Nevada water law.”
– Acting Nevada State Engineer Tim Wilson

As they continued with their presentation, Acting State Engineer Tim Wilson sought to pre-but opponents’ claim that AB 30 was introduced to expedite approval and construction of SNWA’s proposed pipeline to Eastern Nevada. According to Wilson, “I want to be clear: This is absolutely untrue.” Instead, Wilson claimed, “The intent of AB 30 is to add needed clarity to existing Nevada water law.”

At the core of the debate over AB 30 is the debate over the value of monitoring, management, and mitigation plans, also known as 3M plans. DCNR officials view 3M plans as a viable option to resolve 21st century water conflicts, as existing state law directs the state engineer to reject new water claims or applications if they interfere the rights of existing users with priority rights. But when we spoke with Great Basin Water Network Executive Director Kyle Roerink late last month, he countered that 3M plans are an insufficient substitute for due process that’s open to the public: “With that discretion comes a replacement water scheme with no criteria outlining an actual plan to mitigate the conflict.”

Assembly Member Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) zeroed in on AB 30’s potential to ease the path forward for SNWA’s pipeline when he asked whether the bill applies to interbasin transfers, as the pipeline will do if approved and built: “Would a 3M plan apply to those areas, or is it geared toward managing conflict mitigation for water rights only?” After DCNR’s tried to assuage Watts’ concern, he replied, “I’m concerned that the intent may be to resolve water rights conflicts, but that the mitigation measures could potentially result in harm to the public interest or environmental soundness.”

“I don’t understand how the process takes into account the complexities of water in Nevada. […] Coming up with an engineered plan doesn’t mitigate these conflicts.”
– Assembly Member Sarah Peters (D-Reno)

Assembly Members Robin Titus (R-Yerington) and Alexis Hansen (R-Sparks) then expressed their concerns. Hansen addressed the fears of rural farmers and ranchers as she exclaimed, “It’s not just a matter of drawing from a well. It could be a severe impact on their ability to continue operations.”

Assembly Member Sarah Peters (D-Reno) subsequently noted her own engineering background, but warned of the unforeseen consequences of engineering a resolution without taking into account all the reasons for the conflict in the first place: “I don’t understand how the process takes into account the complexities of water in Nevada.” She added, “Coming up with an engineered plan doesn’t mitigate these conflicts.”

Crowell later answered these and other questions by pointing out the litigious nature of water issues in Nevada: “We need [AB 30] to rectify conflicting provisions in state law. No matter what we do, we end up in court.” He expressed hope that AB 30 and other bills can modernize the law and bring down the state’s legal bills.

“If there’s no conflict, there’s no need for mitigation.”
– Jake Tibbetts, Eureka County

Rarely does a bill attract zero public testimony in support, yet that’s what happened tonight during public comment on AB 30. Assembly NRAM Chair Heidi Swank (D-Las Vegas) quickly shifted to open testimony in opposition. Jake Tibbetts, Natural Resources Manager for Eureka County, was blunt in explaining his and the county’s opposition: “If there’s no conflict, there’s no need for mitigation.” He continued, “Options to avoid conflict are already available without the need to change law.”

The Center for Biological Diversity’s Patrick Donnelly later arose to share with the committee much of what he told us last year when he explained how the mass diversion of water from a basin with finite groundwater resources would lead to catastrophe for the region’s fragile ecosystem. If SNWA succeeds in building the pipeline, Donnelly and other pipeline opponents fear the pipeline will cause irreparable loss of threatened wildlife, such as bighorn sheep, deer, various species of fish, and the threatened sage grouse, along with harming the livelihood of agriculture-dependent rural communities.

As Donnelly put it, “In short, it would be the most destructive environmental project in Nevada history. AB 30 would enable the Las Vegas Pipeline, make no mistake about it.” He continued, “There are some things that just can’t be mitigated. Those losses would be permanent and irreversible.”

“Southern Nevada uses 5% of the state’s water and has 70% of the state’s population. The groundwater development project moves us from 5% to 6%.”
– Andy Bellinger, Southern Nevada Water Authority

In a bit of a surprising twist, SNWA’s Andy Bellinger emerged to testify from the Las Vegas teleconference site as neutral: “While we agree with the state engineer’s office that these issues are complex, we also recognize that there’s a lot of concern over what this bill will do.”

Though Bellinger stated SNWA neither supports nor opposes AB 30 specifically, he did defend his organization’s proposed pipeline: “Southern Nevada uses 5% of the state’s water and has 70% of the state’s population. The groundwater development project moves us from 5% to 6%. That’s what we’re talking about.”

Nonetheless, that 1% has sparked this epic water conflict of our times here in Nevada. DCNR officials sought to present AB 30 as reasonable and viable conflict resolution. And yet, this proposal for conflict resolution thus far is contributing to intensified conflict. It now comes down to the Nevada Legislature to decide how exactly to resolve this conflict: change the state law that’s being cited as the root of this conflict, or shut off the pipeline project at the center of this conflict.

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