‘Four feet;’ Water goal to avoid in Mason, Smith

WELLINGTON — The state engineer met with water rights holders in Mason and Smith valleys this week to outline the procedure for a possible cutback in their water.

Jason King started the meeting here in Smith Valley Thursday with a summary of what is ahead for farmers and ranchers next season.

“These are the important take home points,” said King. “If curtailment is required in 2016, it will only be to supplemental groundwater and not to all rights or to domestic wells. It will be based on streamflows. Junior water rights will be curtailed 100 percent, the rest will get their full allotment.”

In two weeks, the Division of Water Resources plans to issue a draft order and then in early October hold hearings at which water rights holders from the valleys can comment on it. The division may then revise it and issue a final order later that month.

The office is relying on streamflow forecasts for the Walker River from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and basin models developed by the Desert Research Institute in Reno.

The exact curtailment will depend on the April 1 forecast, which is available online for anyone to track.

Rick Felling, deputy administrator, outlined how it will work.

He said if streamflows are forecast to be 50 percent or better, there will be no curtailment, either because none are necessary at the higher streamflows or because curtailment would be ineffective at the lower percentage flows.

A 40 percent streamflow forecast will require 75 percent curtailment, a 20 percent streamflow equals 80 percent curtailment and so on, Felling said.

The division then determines who would be restricted based on priority dates of their water rights in order to achieve the needed cutback in use.

The curtailment could be revised and eased in June if April and May prove to be wet months.

The goal is to avoid a drawdown of 4 feet or more in the water table in the two valleys, where water levels are declining more precipitously than in previous droughts, Felling said.

“If I had to create a bumper sticker,” said King during his summary, “it would say ‘four feet.’”

King and others from the water division said they would consider outside proposals for a different approach.

“Our office is aware of water rights holders looking at alternative curtailment plans,” said King. “Our office is willing and ready to listen to any serious alternative plans.”

Bryan Masini, a Mason Valley rancher, said he’s part of one of two groups of water rights holders working to develop alternatives.

Masini said he was waiting to hear the details of Mason Valley’s possible curtailment before disclosing his group’s ideas, but the group’s plan would look beyond next year.

“We have a proposal that I think gets where they want to go. We’re hoping for more of a long-term plan where we’re allowed more leeway and we replenish the aquifer during wet years,” Masini said after the meeting.

A possible curtailment, said Masini, “is catastrophic during catastrophic years.”

The state engineer’s office issued a curtailment order Feb. 3 which called for a 50 percent cutback in all supplemental rights, not just those of junior rights holders.

That order was challenged in court by Farmers Against Curtailment Order LLC, a group of area water rights holders, and District Judge Leon Aberasturi issued a preliminary injunction. A hearing in that case is set for October.

What the water division took away from the court’s injunction was any curtailment had to be done by priority, giving senior rights holders their full due, and not across the board.

Despite that challenge, data collected by the water resources division as of Aug. 1 shows the valleys’ users may have voluntarily reduced pumping in the area by as much as 50 percent.

“That’s to all of your credit,” King told the 75 or so attendees here.


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