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On the Water Front: Final Update on the Final Week of the 80th Legislative Session

As the 80th Session of the Nevada Legislature nears its close, we might as well begin reflecting on what happened and why it came about. And hey, speaking of reflection, what happened to the water bills that came upon us like a tidal wave at the start of the session?

In the ultimate anticlimactic moment, the marquee “don’t call it a pipeline” bill got wiped out at the last minute. Yet while that bill was getting wiped out, other bills managed to swim upstream and may soon ride the wave all the way to the Governor’s desk.

In the Assembly, a fragile consensus emerged on the once contentious AB 30…
Photo by Andrew Davey

When we last checked in on AB 30, the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) that introduced the bill and the coalition of environmental activists and rural community leaders who originally opposed the bill agreed upon a compromise. In exchange for an amendment that clarifies that the state’s new conflict mitigation system under AB 30 can not be used to expedite approval of water diversion projects that are still very much under conflict (such as, for instance, a roughly 300 mile long pipeline diverting Eastern Nevada groundwater to Las Vegas), the coalition dropped their opposition to the bill.

That allowed the newly amended AB 30 to pass the Assembly Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Mining (NRAM) Committee during an April 10 work session, though it was ultimately on a party-line vote. (Democrats voted for, while Republicans voted against.) Then when AB 30 received its full Assembly floor vote on April 23, Assembly Members Melissa Hardy (R-Henderson), Glen Leavitt (R-Henderson), and Tom Roberts (R-Las Vegas) crossed party lines to vote with all the Democrats present for passage (while all other Republicans voted against).

So about a month ago, the future seemed bright for the nascent consensus on what’s normally a highly contentious matter. Yet a while back, someone offered me these words of wisdom on how business works in Carson City: No matter what happens in the first house, pay attention to bills as they move through the second house. That turned out to be great advice for figuring out what the hell ultimately happened to AB 30 in the Senate.

Only for that fragile consensus to fall apart in the Senate.
Photo by Matt Affolter, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia

Thanks to Colton Lochhead’s recent report in the R-J, we have a better idea of how that consensus on AB 30 that emerged in the Assembly fell apart in the Senate. Remember that during the first AB 30 hearing on February 27, Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) officials testified as neutral. They remained neutral when the amended version emerged from Assembly NRAM, though they appeared to be even less “neutrally content” with the new language than the old.

In the Senate Natural Resources Committee earlier this month, environmentalists and rural water officials voiced concern that the language in the second reprint of the bill was not what they agreed to in Assembly NRAM, while SNWA officials proposed an amendment “to affirm that the State Engineer has the inherent authority to use monitoring, management and mitigation plans to resolve issues arising under NRS Chapters 533 and 534”, language that seemed so simple yet that language that signaled tensions were boiling over all over again.

Photo by Andrew Davey

Senate Natural Resources ultimately moved the bill out of their committee on May 17 with no recommendation, though not before stripping the Assembly’s compromise language from the original bill. With consensus all gone and conflict born anew, Senate leaders moved AB 30 to the Secretary’s Desk once it reached the floor last week, a desk that’s essentially designed as legislative purgatory.

DCNR officials claimed all along that AB 30 was never meant to be “the pipeline bill”. But with SNWA and pipeline opponents so far apart on what kind of AB 30 language they could potentially live with, Senate leaders quietly killed the bill last Friday as Governor Steve Sisolak’s (D) administration resorted to the emerging 2019 (but really evergreen) theme of “forming a working group” to “study the issue” to prepare for “revisiting this matter in the 2021 session”.

So what else has been going on?
Photo by Andrew Davey

While AB 30 has sucking much of the oxygen out of the labyrinth of rooms where water policy is crafted in Carson City, other water bills have been chugging along. On one hand, DCNR’s companion bill promoting “conjunctive management of groundwater and surface water”, AB 51, died last month due to gnawing suspicions that it was also being used as a vehicle to assist SNWA’s pursuit of its Eastern Nevada pipeline. In addition, Assembly Member Sarah Peters’ (D-Reno) AB 265 to order a study of desalination and water recycling alternatives died last month without a floor vote in either house. However AB 62, a bill to allow five-year deadline extensions for water extensions, passed the Senate on a near party-line 12-9 vote last Thursday, with Senator Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) joining all Republicans to vote against.

In a different kind of bipartisan vote, Assembly Member Howard Watts’ (D-Las Vegas) AB 163 to update and expand the state’s water conservation standards passed the Senate last Monday on a 14-6 vote, with Senators Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) and Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) joining all Democrats present to vote for it. That spirit of bipartisanship extended to additional water bills, as SB 140 to require 10% reserve water in basins, SB 150 to require more municipal authorities to develop water resource plans, SB 236 to set a 300 foot limit for water diversion wells, and SB 250 to require water previously marked for local use stay in local use all passed the Assembly unanimously last Friday.

So on one end, the very contentious SNWA pipeline project remains such a point of contention that two bills have died gruesome deaths while a third bill essentially died on the cutting room floor. But when it comes to matters like water conservation and better planning, others bills have actually broken through and will soon reach Governor Sisolak’s desk. So there actually has been some progress “on the water front”, even if the 300 mile long pipeline in the room continues to loom large over this state.

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