Nevada’s state engineer told farmers from Mason and Smith valleys last week they face water cuts next year if drought conditions continue.
State Engineer Jason King and several members of his staff held meetings in Yerington and Wellington to lay out the case for a possible curtailment order in the stressed Walker River water basins.
“We’re in the fourth year of drought and what’s scary is we don’t know if this is the end of the drought or not,” King told about 70 attendees in the Smith Valley Community Center on Thursday. “There is very little recharge to the aquifer and there is unprecedented groundwater pumping.”
Richard Felling, deputy administrator, state engineer’s office, gave a technical presentation outlining current water conditions in the valleys.
He showed due to historically low river inflows and significant groundwater pumping, water levels in many of the valleys’ wells have dropped by 4 feet or more, and some by more than 8 feet, putting those wells in danger of failure.
“We feel that 4 feet of drawdown is too much and we’re going to use 4 feet as our benchmark for this period of time,” said Felling. “The judge asked us what we’d use.”
The judge is Judge Leon Aberasturi in Third Judicial District Court in Yerington, who blocked a curtailment order issued by the state engineer earlier this year.
That order, published in February, called for a 50 percent cutback in groundwater pumping on groundwater rights that are supplemental to surface rights in the two valleys.
The order was appealed by Farmers Against Curtailment Order LLC, a group formed by valley farmers.
The order called for a 50 percent curtailment of all supplemental rights and the judge rejected it, saying the state engineer didn’t curtail based on priority.
King said his office tried to make the case supplemental rights were different than other water rights and therefor could be restricted differently.
The decision leaves the engineer’s office no choice but to curtail by priority — that is, cut all water rights for junior rights holders first, leaving senior water rights in tact.
“We have to go by the law,” said King. “If we determine we need to cut 30,000 acre feet, we’ll cut junior rights until we get to 30,000 acre feet.”
The office is working with the Desert Research Institute to develop models that will guide its decision. Based on estimates for April 1 snowpack and river inflows, the models will determine how much water needs to be restricted in the valleys in order to avoid groundwater levels dropping more than 4 feet.
Felling showed possible scenarios. If, for example, an overall 50 percent curtailment in the basin is called for, then those water rights holders with rights dating from about 1960 forward would be cut off entirely.
The issue of junior and senior rights holders became clear during the question and answer period, when King was asked about how the curtailment would be implemented.
Some farmers seemed surprised to learn water could be cut off entirely, based on priority of rights.
“I’ve never heard anything about it going to zero,” said Cameron Pedego, Cripple Foot Ranch in Minden, who also farms in Smith Valley, after the meeting. “I guarantee the order will be appealed by someone if it goes to zero.”
King also said any order would exclude indoor use for domestic wells as a matter of public health safety.
He and Felling emphasized the order would be for one year.
“This is short term,” said Felling. “We still think these basins are in pretty good shape.”
King said if an order looks likely, his office would issue an initial one in October so farmers can prepare for the coming season.
“We really feel like we’re in this together. But we also have culpability and we have water law we must follow,” said King. “And we have a resource we must maintain.”
The state engineer will also be back in Wellington sometime in August to provide an update on the DRI modeling specific to Smith Valley when it’s completed.
On Friday, King was in Las Vegas for the second meeting of the Nevada Drought Forum.
The daylong meeting featured presentations from some of the state’s major industries, including gaming and hospitality, mining, energy, tourism and manufacturing.
The businesses had been asked by the forum, which was convened by Gov. Brian Sandoval in April, to discuss how the drought was affecting their industries and what, if anything, could be done to deal with it.
There were few surprises and Leo Drozdoff, director, Nevada Department of Conservation & Natural Resources and forum chair, said the panel might follow up with more in-depth questions now that it had an overview.
“Next time we have fewer sectors and there will perhaps be room for a deeper dive,” said Drozdoff.
On Aug. 19, the forum meets in Sparks, this time to hear from representatives of the state’s biggest water users — agriculture and municipalities, as well as from some nonprofits and advocacy groups.
The forum will hold a summit in Carson City, Sept. 21-23, after which it will deliver a report to Gov. Sandoval.