Monday, March 25, 2013

Dividing Up the Groundwater in Nevada

In the arid west water has value. Once granted, water rights in Nevada have the standing of both real and personal property and can be conveyed as with the real property or specifically excluded in the deed. Water rights can be purchased or sold as personal property and change the water's point of diversion, manner of use and place of use. Within the Las Vegas Valley,  there are speculators who buy and sell older water rights that are permanent, which means whomever buys them is generally free to pump them from most anywhere else in the Las Vegas Valley.  Unlike the east, where water groundwater belongs to the overlying land and surface water is allocated based on the riparian doctrine that gives an owner of land bordering on water the right to use that water, in Nevada water rights are granted by the State Engineer.  

All water within the boundaries of the state of Nevada,whether above or beneath the surface of the ground, belongs to the public and is subject to appropriation for beneficial use to remote parties. Nevada’s first water law passed in 1866 was based on a system of first users have the first rights to water. The Office of the State Engineer was created by the Nevada Legislature in 1903 to manage the surface waters of the state. It was not until the passage of the Nevada General Water Law Act of 1913 that the State Engineer was granted jurisdiction over wells tapping artesian water or water in definable underground aquifers. The 1939 Nevada Underground Water Act granted the State Engineer jurisdiction over all groundwater in the state.

Now, with almost the entire surface water allocated (and possible over allocated in the recent drought) towns on behalf of local industry and future growth are attempting to lock up water rights and the wealth that goes with it. The town of West Wendover, Nevada on behalf of itself and Wendover, Utah has filed permits to obtain 650 million gallons of water each year from the Pilot Valley groundwater basin after having a previous request for an increase in their allocation from their current groundwater supply denied by the State Engineer. A 1971 federal groundwater study determined that the Pilot Valley groundwater basin could provide 1.5 billion gallons of water annually. This data is old and was produced at a time before groundwater was as well understood as it is today. Even today groundwater sustainability is still not fully understood. In addition, there are droughts, climate changes; water draws from surface water changes the recharge rate of the groundwater and residents of Pilot Valley claim that the prolonged drought has lowered groundwater levels in their wells. If true, this brings into question what the sustainable level of consumption is for this groundwater basin.  

The U.S. Geological Survey did not begin quantitative analysis of the major groundwater systems of the United States until 1978 and since that time there has been tremendous evolution in the understanding of and ability to model groundwater systems. Older attempts to model groundwater systems neglected relevant hydraulic and geological processes as well as representing inappropriate processes and using mathematical simplifications and did not even include a connection to surface water. Clearly, new studies need to be performed before significant water rights are granted. The State Engineer has the authority to require a hydrological, environmental or any other study necessary prior to final determination of an application for water rights.
from SNWA web site

This is not a one-off application for water rights. Throughout the portions of the arid west that allocate groundwater rights communities have been attempting to secure more groundwater rights for their communities and none has been as active as  Las Vegas and the Southern Nevada  Water Authority, SNWA. In light of ongoing drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin and continued population growth, the SNWA continues to seek groundwater rights to an additional 44 billion gallons of non-Colorado River resources groundwater that it can pipe to the city. The State Engineers approval of the applications has been challenged and will be heard in the Nevada Supreme Court. The average Las Vegas house and family uses about 450 gallons of water a day which translates to about 163,000 a year, but the SNWA is engaged in a major water conservation and reuse program to reduce the household use by 199 gallons per day. As SNWA points out for the west to survive, they will have to use significantly less water per person in the future.  The state of Nevada has updated their drought response plan for the first time in a decade as the Colorado River system is facing the worst drought on record. The water level of Lake Mead, the reservoir for Las Vegas has dropped more than 100 feet since January 2000.

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