Snake Valley water battle heating up

Nov 2, 2012

A water dispute between Nevada and Utah is the tip of a controversy that’s likely to worsen as relentless drought grips much of the nation and large volumes of water are pumped from aquifers, dropping underground water levels to dangerously low depths.

J.J. Goicoechea, president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, wants the U.S. to conduct a complete water inventory as that precious resource dwindles throughout vast regions of the nation, hitting ranching and farming operations especially hard.

A report by three Utah environmental and water attorneys that was released on Monday, Oct. 9, by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert says a proposed Snake Valley groundwater sharing agreement between Nevada and Utah isn’t perfect, but it’s preferred to a prolonged, expensive lawsuit between the two states that could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Utah has developed 55,000 acre feet of groundwater in the Great Basin and would be allowed to develop an additional 6,000 acre feet per year under the agreement. Nevada has developed 12,000 acre feet and would be entitled to another 35,000 acre feet per year.

The attorneys said the agreement protects existing Utah appropriated water rights for irrigation, stock water and domestic use, as well as assures protection for the Fish Springs habitat and environment. The pact would equally divide water rights in the Snake Valley basin shared by the two states if sufficient groundwater is available.

That 50-50 split is vehemently opposed by Millard County officials in Utah who fear a $15.5 billion drilling project will pump the aquifer dry as an estimated 57 billion gallons of the desert groundwater are piped 300 miles across Nevada to satiate the unquenchable thirst of Las Vegas.

Presenting their own proposal to Utah’s governor, they called the agreement a farce for ignoring decades of historical water use in Utah, which has ranged from 76 percent to 84 percent of available groundwater in Snake Valley.

Steve Erickson, a consultant and Utah coordinator for the Great Basin Water Network, said the agreement creates an adversarial process by which people must prove they’ve been impacted by pumping. He said the three attorneys’ conclusion was a superficial, flawed analysis that fails to recognize the water split will be more like 7:1 in Nevada’s favor.

Quoting a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Final Environmental Impact Statement, Erickson said the Nevada drilling and pipeline project would cause water tables to drop up to 200 feet and land surface would subside by more than five feet over 525 square miles, threaten to dry up 305 springs, 112 miles of streams and 8,000 acres of wetlands, and blow 34,742 tons of dust downwind into Utah each year.

The water sharing agreement between the Sagebrush and Beehive states was reached in 2009 after several years of negotiating, but Herbert has balked at signing it into law. This past August, the Southern Nevada Water Authority threatened to sue Utah for not doing so. The Utah Water Development Commission will review the attorneys’ report at its November meeting.

Goicoechea told Western Livestock Journal that the dispute between Nevada and Utah over the Snake Valley groundwater is typical of conflicts that will intensify when there is not enough water in other basins to meet demands and needs. Neither side is happy about exporting water to southern Nevada when it is in such short supply, he said.

“There’s so much we don’t understand about underground water. This is another example of why we need a complete water inventory. Even though this has been going on for several years, dry years like this bring it to the forefront,” Goicoechea said, noting that drainage basins and aquifers are not being recharged. It will take several years to replenish them.

“As far as drought wise, this is the most significant drought in this part of Nevada we’ve seen on record. Last year was one of the wettest. This year is one of the driest.”

Stock water in White Pine County and other Nevada counties is drying up because of a significant drought in central and northern Nevada, Goicoechea said. “If we don’t get a good winter, the livestock industry is in big trouble here in Nevada,” he said, predicting a big selloff in 2013 if precipitation fails to materialize the next few months.

“There are going to be guys who won’t be here next year. … We’ve had a couple of operations go out the last few months due to drought. …, ” Goicoechea said, noting a few 300- to 400-head operations have failed to survive. “It’s scary. … It’s a terrible year.”

While the livestock market remains fairly high and ranchers are holding their own, input costs continue to escalate. “Hay prices are extremely high this year,” Goicoechea said, noting $200 a ton is common. “There goes your profit right out the window.”

The federal government heavily regulates Nevada’s ranching and farming operations. The BLM and Forest Service are removing domestic cattle from dry public lands, “leaving an overabundance of horses.” The federal agencies are asking ranchers to sign voluntary non-use accords for next year and agree not to graze their livestock on range.

Because of Nevada’s strong water laws, Goicoechea owns his water rights and his stock water rights are vested to him. “The Forest Service is saying if we don’t sign over our rights to them, they won’t allow water pipelines or troughs,” he said.

Goicoechea’s operation near Eureka, NV, has access to groundwater and surface water to put up hay for his 700 head, but if there are no storms by next spring, Goicoechea and other Nevada ranchers may be forced to cut their herds in half for lack of pasture.

With Nevada’s governor and local counties declaring drought emergencies, ranchers can take advantage of Internal Revenue Service relief to offset expenses, Goicoechea said.

While the science is available, the cost of adjudicating water rights for hundreds of water basins is too exorbitant to be practical, he noted.

“We’re not going to get help from Uncle Sam to fix this water problem out here.”

Cattle and farming operations, municipalities and others need to work together going forward, he said.

“Everybody is just on the edge of their seat,” Goicoechea said. “We’ve got to get an inventory done. We’ve got to stop the ‘mining’ of water. That’s what we’re doing. We can’t go beyond the water budget. … It’s a pretty frustrating time right now.” Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent