Today, District Court Judge Elizabeth Gonzales held a more informal meeting of the minds in a Las Vegas courtroom. Typically in business disputes, Nevada courts offer plaintiffs and defendants one more opportunity to reach a settlement before the case goes to trial. But this time around, Virgin Valley Water District (VVWD) and Wolf Creek are still at loggerheads over the roughly $174 per acre-foot rate that VVWD wants Wolf Creek and other local golf courses to pay, a rate that would amount to nearly five times what Wolf Creek is paying now.
Why is $174 the most important number in the courtroom?
It all comes down to that $174 rate, which translates into $1,246 per share of Mesquite Irrigation District and/or Bunkerville Irrigation District water that’s sold to VVWD. It remains to be seen whether this private commoditization of Virgin Valley water complies with the public trust doctrine that generally forms the bedrock of Nevada water law. In the meantime, though, the biggest question in the Wolf Creek case is whether VWWD is breaching its prior contract by demanding that Wolf Creek and other golf courses pay closer to the $174 per acre-foot/$1,246 per share rate that Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) later agreed to in its own water lease agreement with VVWD.
When asked about their role in this dispute last week, SNWA officials cited the ongoing litigation as they declined to comment on the $174 per acre-foot rate they’re paying for Virgin Valley water that they’re using to meet SNWA’s agreement with other Colorado River stakeholders to store water in Lake Mead.
Yet when VVWD General Manager Kevin Brown did speak on record with us in September, he framed the dispute this way: “We feel that we have a resource that Wolf Creek has benefitted from over the past eight years by paying a subprime amount of lease for. Those shares are worth more money now. They should pay more for these shares, just as the rest of the [local businesses] are.”
But according to former VVWD Board Member and future Mesquite City Council Member Sandra Ramaker, the water lease program was originally designed in 2011 to direct excess water to local users at affordable rates. As Ramaker told us in September, “We weren’t trying to send them somewhere else. We were trying to keep them here. Four of us voted for that, two people from Bunkerville and two people from Mesquite. We thought that was a good thing.”
What happened today?
Shortly after Judge Elizabeth Gonzales walked into the courtroom, she proceeded with closed meetings with the VVWD group, and closed meetings with the Wolf Creek group. Yet despite Judge Gonzales’ attempts to find some sort of common ground between the two parties, that great divide over the $174 per acre-foot SNWA rate remains.
After the hearing, the parties left without an agreement. As long as this status quo holds, the case will likely move into the next phase where the plaintiffs (Wolf Creek) will seek discovery, which will allow them to depose various parties and seek more information on how VVWD shifted from its original construct of the water lease program to the current system where SNWA’s lease agreement forms the baseline.
Meanwhile the water continues to flow in the Virgin Valley, though there’s evidence suggesting VVWD is pumping out nearly twice the amount of water that the Virgin River Basin can handle, and the Virgin River is part of the larger Colorado River Basin that itself is dangerously close to an official shortage declaration. As we pan out to the larger picture along the river, it remains to be determined whether this lawsuit is a sign of more trouble to come on Nevada’s “water front”.