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On the Water Front: A Conversation with Great Basin Water Network’s Kyle Roerink on the State of Nevada’s Water

Late last year, Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) General Manager John Entsminger emphasized the need for more conservation when asked whether the record low flows of the Colorado River necessitate a pipeline to Eastern Nevada. Last week, Great Basin Water Network Executive Director concurred that more conservation can only help in these dry times.

So is everyone now on the same page? Not so fast. As we await the opening of this year’s legislative session, Roerink speaks with us about what we can expect “on the water front” in Carson City, from the ongoing debate over the pipeline plan to the possibility of some kind of consensus on conservation.

“The necessity of the bill comes into question. If there are no conflicts under the law, you can grant a permit.”
– Kyle Roerink, Great Basin Water Network
Photo by Matt Affolter, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia

On November 16, 2018, the Assembly Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Mining Committee introduced what’s now AB 30. On NELIS, the introduction states this bill “authoriz[es] the State Engineer, under certain circumstances, to consider the approval of a proposal to avoid or eliminate conflicts between an applicant for a permit to appropriate water and the existing holders of water rights and owners of domestic wells.” Considering the ongoing conflicts involving SNWA’s proposed pipeline to divert water from Eastern Nevada to Las Vegas, it’s all but assured AB 30 will apply to SNWA’s pipeline project should it become law.

This explains why Great Basin Water Network has already announced its opposition to AB 30. As Roerink views it, “Our biggest concern is that it gives the state engineer unfettered discretion to create mitigation plans.” He continued, “With that unfettered discretion comes the potential for lack of public input and due process. With that discretion comes a replacement water scheme with no criteria outlining an actual plan to mitigate the conflict.”

Image courtesy of Great Basin Water Network

Roerink then made this point: “The necessity of the bill comes into question. If there are no conflicts under the law, you can grant a permit.” Thus far, SNWA officials have publicly claimed that there will be no conflicts if the pipeline is approved. For Great Basin Water Network and others who opposed the pipeline plan, the mere existence of AB 30 casts doubt on SNWA’s denial of the potential for conflict.

“The rate of recharge for these ancient groundwater aquifers has been the subject of much debate over the years. If you suck that water dry, that water will not come back in a reasonable amount of time.”
– Kyle Roerink
Photo by Thure Johnson, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Flickr

So why might there be a conflict over these waters in Eastern Nevada? When we spoke with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Patrick Donnelly last August, he laid out the stark reality of the water in this region: “[T]hese basins are full of fossil water. These are not renewable resources. […] If you take this water out, you won’t get it back.”

When asked about Donnelly’s characterization of the water resources in question as “fossil water”, Roerink agreed with Donnelly: “The rate of recharge for these ancient groundwater aquifers has been the subject of much debate over the years. If you suck that water dry, that water will not come back in a reasonable amount of time.” He then noted that Eastern Nevada is largely experiencing the same extended dry spell that’s sparked much fear and loathing in the Colorado River Basin: “We’re not seeing the precipitation that we once did. If you go to Eastern Nevada, ranchers can show you the sites of former springs that can no longer be used.”

Photo by Johan Jonsson, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia

Every so often, we see comparisons to the infamous case of Owens Valley, California, that inspired the 1974 neo-noir classic, Chinatown. Pipeline opponents have long argued that SNWA’s plan amounts to a 21st century version of Los Angeles water officials’ secret strategy to drain that patch of the Eastern Sierras in order to fuel LA’s suburban sprawl. During our conversation, Roerink pointed to the BLM’s June 2011 Environmental Impact Statement as hard evidence backing up these concerns.

As Roerink put it, “This would be Owens Valley magnified on a much larger scale. In 1930, after the LA Aqueduct was just operating for a few years, Owens Lake was dry.” He continued, “I think we would see a massive, colossal loss in the dominant vegetation there. We would see the same with wildlife [such as mule deer, bighorn sheep, and multiple species of birds]. This is not just Kyle Roerink talking. This is science.”

“I don’t think there’s one silver bullet. There has to be a mix of conservation and innovation.”
– Kyle Roerink

 

Photo by Andrew Davey

While AB 30 is set to be debated in Carson City, Clark County will soon consider renewing the quarter-cent sales tax surcharge that goes to SNWA for water infrastructure. It was enabled by the Nevada Legislature in 1997, then sent to the voters via the Clark County Commission, then approved by voters in 1998. It’s currently set to “sunset” in 2025, but the Commission may decide to make the surtax permanent. During our conversation Roerink expressed hope that the Commission will take a closer look at SNWA’s ranching operations in Eastern Nevada, how many taxpayer dollars have already been spent on these ranches, and how much more SNWA intends to invest in the pipeline project before the Commission makes a final decision on renewing the quarter-cent surtax.

Heading back to Carson City, Roerink also expressed hope for consensus on a water conservation bill that Assembly Member Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) will introduce (it’s currently a BDR, or bill draft request) and a separate water bill that Assembly Member Sarah Peters (D-Reno) will introduce (it’s also currently a BDR). And despite Governor Steve Sisolak’s (D) past votes in favor of SNWA’s pipeline plan, Roerink expressed confidence that Sisolak will follow through on his promise last fall to oppose the pipeline: “We have full faith that the Governor will move the state forward and see that the economic security and the water future of rural Nevada and Las Vegas don’t have to be in conflict.”

 

Photo by Andrew Davey

On that last point, how can the state ensure that the water interests of the Las Vegas Valley and Eastern Nevada are not in conflict? Roerink acknowledged, “I don’t think there’s one silver bullet. There has to be a mix of conservation and innovation.” He later added, “I don’t think residents of Southern Nevada want to see Eastern Nevada sacrificed just for more golf courses, more fountains, more green lawns in the Mojave Desert.”

And this right here gets to the potential consensus. Last December, SNWA General Manager John Entsminger himself told us, “[I]f we can take care of the conservation, we’re not going to need to worry about new sources of water for decades to come.” Of course, he also added that “everything is on the table”. But if SNWA and other stakeholders can agree on pursuing stronger conservation standards, wouldn’t that mean there’s no need for the pipeline to ever get past that conceptual table? So far, it looks like the Nevada Legislature may answer this question in the next 119 days.

Cover photo by Thure Johnson, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Flickr.

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Comments (1)

  1. Michael M. McGreer

    Excellent. Thank you for staying on top of this most important issue

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