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Research Findings Dispute Virgin Valley Water Board Claims About Water Development

Editors Note: On April 25, 2018, Barbara Ellestad, a former member of the

Barbara Ellestad

Virgin Valley Water Board (VVWB), wrote an article in the Mesquite Local News. In the article, she talked about an amendment to an agreement between the VVWB and the Conestoga Golf Course. It said:

“Also included in the amendment is a provision allowing the district to develop alternative water sources that it could make available to the golf course instead of the irrigation water it now supplies. VVWD General Manager Kevin Brown said the district is considering developing seasonal water resources it has available in the Half Way Wash located downriver from Mesquite.”

Here are the facts behind that water development claim.

Overview:

On July 25, 2017, Timber Weiss, a water resource specialist for the Nevada Department Division of Conservation and Natural Resources, Division of Water Resources,  wrote a letter to the Virgin Valley Water District (VVWD) and Wade Poulson of the Lincoln County Water District, Panaca, NV.

Weiss refered to 96 groundwater applications in the Virgin River Valley Hydrographic Basin pending for nearly 30 years.  Others, Weiss said are filings prompted by the Nevada Supreme Court decision in the Great Basin Water Network case.  He noted that the State Engineer has been attempting since at least 2008 to move these applications to resolution. ninety-three of the applications were held by the VVWD and three by the Lincoln County Water District.

Weiss reminded the Board of the perennial yield [[i]] (underground water) of Basin 222 [the local basin] which is set at 3,600 Acre Feet Annually (AFA).

On September 18, 2017, Kevin Brown, Manager for the Virgin Valley Water District (VVWD) replied to Weiss. He said that the VVWD wished to develop 15 of the applications equal to 65,158.65 AFA of underground water.

On October 3, 2017, Brown presented his response to Weiss to the VVWB. The Board agreed to the letter.

Proposed Development Area

The 15 applications (in yellow) are located located at the mouth of Halfway Wash where it enters the Virgin River (green triangle), several miles south-east of VVWB service area in Mesquite and Bunkerville.

VVWB proposed well locations

The streams mouth is at its confluence with the Virgin River at an elevation of 1,306 feet (398 meters).  Any effort to take or refill an underground well would likely draw water from the river itself.  That would make the effort part of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Most, if not all of the river water under that Compact has already been allocated primarily to the Southern Nevada Water Authority(SNWA).

The VVWB is pumping 6,608 AFA. Therefore, they are pumping 3,008 AFA more ground water from the Basin than the yield allows. The developed wells have a reliable yield of 13,742.82 AFA. That is 10,142.82 AFA more than the underground yield. If the VVWD had the financial resources to develop the 15 other underground wells near Halfway-Wash, it would exceed the perennial yield by 75,301.47 AFA (10,142.82+65,158.65). That is about 21 times the 3,600 AFA perennial yield.

 Research Findings

In August 2006, desalination and water purification research and development programs were conducted on Halfway-Wash by the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) [[ii]]. The BOR wished to decide if enough water could be obtained from underground sources where the 15 wells are located. The BOR researchers found that the maximum water recovery possible from Halfway-Wash was 50 percent (%) and determined that with the severe water shortages in the area, this level of recovery is not acceptable for the Virgin River Valley Basins 222 and its adjoining Basin 221.

Glancy and Van Denburgh (1968) referred to Worts and Malmberg (1966) for a definition of the system yield and set it at 100,000 AFA in Basin 222. [[iii]]. They set the ground water recharge (perennial) yield [[iv]] for the Virgin River at 3,600 AFA. The Nevada Division of Water Resources referenced Glancy and Van Denburgh for the system and recharge (perennial) yields.

Glancy and Van Denburgh assumed that the system yield was salvageable as follows:

  1. Use by irrigation and municipalities is considered salvage;
  2. Most evapotranspiration discharge can be salvaged;
  3. Up to half the surface-water and ground-water outflow can be salvaged;
  4. Evaporation from water surfaces cannot be salvaged;
  5. Water quality, though marginal from some uses, is acceptable for intended use; and
  6. The estimated system yield is within limits allowed by legal appropriations and decrees.

Brown in this response to Weiss claimed the recharge rate in Glancy and Van Denburgh was 12,000 AFA. Recharge is not the same as a perennial yield. Recharge is subject to a series of environmental factors before it becomes a yield.

Salvaging evapotranspiration requires destroying vegetation. That brings evapotranspiration water closer to the surface where it will be discharged from soil evaporation equal to evapotranspiration thus not salvageable. [[v]]   Therefore, Glancy and Van Denburgh considered the lower precipitation rates in the Virgin River Valley. They then reduced the salvageable recharge rate from 3,600 AFA to only 800 AFA in their water budget.

Brown referred to Holmes and others suggested that their study of the Beaver Dam Wash drainage (north of Mesquite) showed long-term average annual recharge of 18,000 acre-feet, with some years of recharge as high as 41,000 acre-feet to the Muddy Creek Formation

Response:  Brown may be referring to recharge rates at higher altitudes than the Virgin River. In 1997, Holmes et al, compared the precipitation driven drainage upstream at Motoqua, Utah, with relatively greater precipitation with that at the arid Beaver Dam mouth to the Virgin River.  They reported (pg. 26-27 and table 2) that in 1993 from the higher altitudes at Motoqua there was a net loss of 72 -21.5 = 45 ft/s (rounded) of water when it reached the Beaver Dam Wash mouth to the Virgin River 42 miles away and at a considerably lower altitude.

In May 2002, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published a Draft Amendment to the Impact Statement for the Toquop Energy Project. According to the authors, “although the Beaver Dam Wash is perennial along several reaches, little or no surface flow actually occurs at its confluence with the Virgin River most of the year. Surface evaporation rates run counter to local precipitation amounts and are relatively high.  On the floor of the Virgin River Valley, for example, the annual evaporation rate has been reported by Woessner et al. (1981) to be about 80 inches or roughly 27 times the average annual precipitation at similar locations.” [[vi]]

Brown said that: “the VVWD commissioned a report in 2002 (Report VVWD-01) that shows an r recharge rate of 85,000 AFA with a yield of 40,000 AFA.” Brown said:  “the VVWD feels that the Report VVWD-01 recharge number may be higher.”

Response: The 2002 report was authored by Michael Johnson, former VVWB Hydrologist, and others. They suggested that the amount of surface water and groundwater that flows into the Lower Virgin River Valley averages about 150,000 AFA of river water and 85,000 AFA of groundwater. As pointed out by Glancy and Van Denburgh only salvageable yields can be taken from the basin. Further, the Johnson model also reflects findings that at altitudes 3,000 feet recharge efficiently is zero. [[vii]] Mesquite elevation is 1,601 feet.

Brown told Weiss that:  “the general consensus of the newer reports is that annual recharge and perennial yield for Basin 222 is considerably higher than what is estimated in the Reconnaissance Report 51 from 1969.

Response:  His conclusions are not supported by the studies. In addition, the VVWB has consistently refused to study the basin.

Further, the 2010 Conceptual Model of the Great Basin Carbonate and Alluvial (underground) Aquifer shows 800 AFA more discharge from the Virgin River Valley than recharge.

Even Nevada Water Engineer Jason King is uncertain. In 2015 King told a Desert Valley Times reporter when asked about the amount of water in the local aquifer, “I’m not sure how much water is in the aquifer now; I couldn’t even estimate how much is there.” The Districts hydrologist in the same article said: “It would take extensive work to figure out how much water is in the aquifer.

Brown told Weiss that “The National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management commissioned a study (actually a model) by Tectra Tech Inc. titled Groundwater Pumping in the Colorado Regional Groundwater Flow System, dated September 28, 2012. The report found minimal effects of groundwater pumping for existing permitted groundwater rights in Basin 222.”

Response: Brown omits the following from the model development:

  1. The volume of water available from the carbonate-rock aquifer has the potential for being a large and produce a source of water.
    1. However, this regional aquifer is the source of several large-volume warm springs that discharge on federal lands, and the
    2. Reduction or cessation of spring discharge on federal lands would likely hurt sensitive habitat and species.
  2. Downstream to Mesquite, NV, groundwater is shallow and provides discharge to the river in areas.
  3. From Mesquite downstream to Lake Mead, groundwater is discharged by evapotranspiration, and perhaps by discharge to the river. Several dry tributary channels, including Toquop Wash, enter the Virgin River between Mesquite and Lake Mead. [[viii]].
  4. Evaluation of 14 discharge measurement locations and 3 diversions suggests that the Virgin River gains significantly between the Narrows and Littlefield Springs (nearly 70 cfs or 50,711.35 AFA). However,
  5. Stream-flow decreases between Littlefield Springs and Bunkerville by approximately 30 cfs (21,733 AFA] then remains relatively consistent between Bunkerville and Lake Mead, with some stretches that gain and others that lose.
  6. The study indicates that while The Virgin River is hydraulically connected to the saturated Muddy Creek Formation, that groundwater is supplying water for evapotranspiration between Bunkerville and Lake Mead [[ix]] but,
  7. It is not discharging into the river at rates high enough to increase its baseflow,
  8. Although groundwater likely flows toward the Virgin River throughout its path to the lake, these potential gains are lost to evapotranspiration along the way, and the Virgin River does not gain substantially inflow, other than in the stretch upstream from Littleton.

Brown’s letter to Weiss said that: “VVWD has commissioned a Well Sustainability Study. Which will be completed in approximately six months.”

Response: Authors of the Tectra Tech model point out that water production in the Virgin River Valley has been increasing in the last decade. They report that the earliest reported production was in 1998, and data for earlier years are not available. The production reached nearly 7,400 AFA in 2005 but has decreased slightly in recent years. They note that:

  1. The response of the groundwater system to pumping is determined primarily by the local geology and the hydrologic properties of the aquifers being pumped.
  2. Pumping in the carbonate aquifer in the western part of the model produces widespread drawdown because of the high transmissivity and low storativity of the carbonate aquifer.
  3. The model predicts that pumping in the Virgin River basin causes a more local draw-down of greater magnitude, and
  4. The simulated drawdowns are reasonable, but cannot be compared with measured drawdowns. Thus, the there is more uncertainty of the model results to pumping in these areas.

The uncertainty in the predictions will primarily affect the timing of when impacts become significant, not whether there will be impacts.{ [x]}

Weiss reminded the Virgin Valley Water Board (VVWB) of a letter the Division received on June 20, 2013. That letter said:  “The VVWD stated on June 20, 2013, that the VVWD does intend to move forward with the applications as growth requires However, development depended upon several planning efforts. Those plans included an Integrated Water Resource Plan, its Master Plan, Hydrologic Monitoring and Mitigation Plan, and Habitat Conservation and Recovery Plan. It also stated that a Hydrological Evaluation of the Lower Virgin River Basin in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, as well as the Tule Desert, was in the process of being developed with the USGS.”

Brown said that: “on September 24, 2011, VVWD completed a Basin 222 Groundwater Evaluation by Bowen Collins & Associates. They recommended that “VVWD evaluate the existing hydrogeologic and precipitation data with the primary goal of quantifying the groundwater recharge rate and sustainable yield of Basin 222.”

Response: In April 2005 the city of Mesquite reached an agreement to expand the scope of the original Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) as part of the Mesquite Land Act. The city was required to develop a Hydrologic Monitoring and Mitigation Plan (HMMP) with the participation of the Water District and BLM to monitor (model) ground, spring and surface water in basin 222. There is no evidence that was never done.

In 2012, Ken Rock, then VVWD General Manager, proposed an underground study by the US. Geological Survey of the Basin. The study, among other things, would comply with the Bowen Collins Association findings. Further, it would include the surrounding states of Arizona and Utah for Water Basin 222. While past board members Sandra Ramaker and Karl Gustafson voted for the study. It was turned down by the majority.

In February 2016, during a joint city council-water board meeting VVWB member Barbara Ellestad argued against a study of the Basin, saying, in part, that at $500,000 it was too expensive.  [[xi]]

On January 27, 2014, the Mesquite Mayor, City Council and all members of the VVWB were requested to ask that a United States Geological Survey (USGS) do a hydrological study of The Virgin River Basin 222 as part of  the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) included  in the 2018 Bureau of Land Management (BLM)  Revised Draft Resource Management Plan (RMP). The cost of such an effort would likely be zero if included in an existing federal effort. No votes were taken, and the request was hidden from public view.

In Brown’s response to Weiss, he referred to a January 9, 2009, letter to the State Water Engineer’s office. Brown correctly emphasized that the Lower Virgin River Basin (Basin 222) is shared with the States of Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.

Response: However, he incorrectly argues that there was no compact between the States on the diversion of surface or groundwater in the basin.

The 1922 Colorado River Compact and later legislation, court rulings, and regulatory guidance extensively covered the relationships for all water that flows into the Virgin River even from underground sources.

Many studies have covered the underground water issues common to those states. Also, the Nevada Division of Water Resources conducted an analysis of surface and underground water rights for Virgin River as part of a Virgin River Memorandum of Understanding between the States of Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. [[xii]]

Brown pointed out that the VVWD hosted a public meeting to discuss the potential of organizing a coalition of federal, state and local governmental entities and agencies with interests in the Lower Virgin River Hydrographic Basin. Brown said that The Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and the Nevada Division of Water Resources participated along with other federal, state, and local entities. Brown argued that due to limited interest, no further progress occurred after that.

Response: Brown’s comment on limited interest is incorrect. Several news articles have been written showing an interest in the subject.  Further, individuals presenting concerns during VVWB meetings are given 3 minutes to present concerns which are promptly ignored.

Brown referred to the VVWB’s 2017 Master Plan in his response to Weiss. He emphasized significant growth and the need for additional water resources.  Brown said: “In April 2017, VVWD completed the Water Master Plan update (See Water Master Plan, April 2017 by Bowen Collins & Associates – BC&A). That plan outlines the VVWD service area and projected population growth.

Response: The VVWB 2017 Master Plan assumes that an increase in population (demand) drives water supply. In fact, it is the limited salvageable yields of water supply limits growth.

Fiscal Restraints

A review of VVWD management suggests that, over time, they have spent more than their revenue, and have taken more water resources then certified and in amounts more than water budget [[xiii]] yields.

The VVWB 2017/2018 budget shows that they earn $11,194,000 each fiscal year. They spend $18,840,906. To make up the differences they use $7,659,906 in designated funds (Another $427,469 in infrastructure repairs not completed in 2016 was rolled over to 2017.

Conclusions.

All studies to date suggest a limit on the amount of water that can be safely and economically salvaged from Virgin River Basin without causing significant damage to the aquifer, the human populations, the environment, and economic activities.

Brown’s letter is a poor imitation of a hydrographic defense and easily refuted. Yet, it does reflect the position of the VVWB and a dangerously incorrect argument that population drives water supply irregardless of actual availability.

The State of Nevada requires (NRS 533.370(1)(c)) water applicants to:

  1. Be reasonable, diligent and have,
  2. The financial ability and,
  3. Reasonable expectation of constructing the work and the ability to,
  4. Apply the water to the intended beneficial use with,
  5. Reasonable

The VVWB can not meet any of these requirements.

Endnotes:

[i] The Nevada Division of Water Resources (2010) defines perennial yield as: The amount of usable water from a groundwater aquifer that can be economically withdrawn and consumed each year for an indefinite period. It cannot exceed the natural recharge to the aquifer and ultimately is limited to maximum amount of discharge that can be utilized for beneficial use.

I Desalination and Water Purification Research and Development, Program, Report No. 148, Halfway wash Treatment Pilot Study, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, August 2006, at: https://www.usbr.gov/research/dwpr/reportpdfs/report148.pdf

[iii] Worts and Malmberg (196 6) defined system yield as the maximum amount of surface and ground water of usable quality that can be obtained economically each year from sources within a system for an indefinite period.  System yield cannot exceed the natural inflow or to or outflow from a system.  Under practical conditions of development, the yield is limited to the maximum amount of surface-water, ground-water, and water vapor outflow that can be salvaged or diverted economically and legally each year for beneficial use. (Glancy and Van Denburgh, 1969, pg. 62.

[iv] Recharge is the primary method through which water enters an aquifer.

[v] Robinson, T.W. “Phreatophytes and their relation to water in western United States, AMER, Geophysics. Union Trans., 33(1) 57-61 illus., in Evapotranspiration and Watershed Research as related to Riparian and phreatophyte Management, compiled by Jerome S. Horton, 1973 pg. 21 at: https://goo.gl/Sf3qh

[vi] United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Nevada State Office, Draft Toquop Land Disposal Amendment to the Caliente Management Framework Plan and Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Toquop Energy Project, DES )1-17, May 2002

[vii] Virgin Valley Water District, University of Nevada Las Vegas, (UNLV), non-copyright in the Public Domain. The original research authors were intentionally omitted from this document as a means of presenting to the Nevada State Water Engineer, who is the sole appropriator of water rights in the state, a non-biased interpretation of the available water resources for appropriation. Edited by author.

[viii] The spatial and temporal distributions of evapotranspiration rates were determined during recent evapotranspiration (ET) studies conducted by the USGS and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR). The National Park Service funded the United States Geological Survey

[ix] Together, DeMeo, et al. (2008, p. 19) and Beck and Wilson (2005, p. 7) showed that the total ET is almost identical to the loss from Littlefield to Overton on the Virgin River, thus There is not a large net gain or loss to/from the river to/from the aquifer system.

[x] Tetra Tech, Inc., “Development of a Numerical Groundwater Flow Model of Selected Basins within the Colorado River Groundwater Flow System, Southeastern Nevada (Version 1.0, at: https://goo.gl/PRbeNw

[xi] See video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UYtCGQaoLU&feature=youtu.be

[xii] State of Nevada, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Division of Water Resources,, “Analysis of Existing Surface and Underground Water Rights and Applications for permits within the Virgin River Drainage Area of Nevada, 1992.

[xiii] A water budget reflects the relationship between input and output of water through a region and establishes recharge rates and yields.

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About Author

Michael McGreer Mesquite, Nevada
Dr. Michael Manford McGreer is managing editor of Nevada-today.com and writes on issues that impact public policy.

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