Fresh Ideas: Public participation should be key in Drought Forum

The Governor’s Nevada Drought Forum is off to a disappointing start. At an April press conference, with parched and dusty Washoe Lake as a dramatic backdrop, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval announced the formation of the Nevada Drought Forum, created by Executive Order. The eight-man committee consists of state government department heads, university system reps and the new boss of Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA).

As someone involved in water issues through Great Basin Water Network, I immediately worked my way through the state’s phone system to figure out who was putting together the email list. Directed to the Governor’s Office staff, I requested to be notified of upcoming meetings.

The first meeting, as it turned out, was last Thursday, June 11. I found out about it on Friday from a news article. These Drought Forum meetings are supposed to be open to the public, and surely they complied with the three day public notice requirements. But outreach to identified interested parties was lacking. Even the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority, listed as a “partner” on the Forum’s website, didn’t learn of the meeting until the afternoon before the meeting, too late to notify its member groups.

This is an ominous start to what should be an opportunity to bring the state together on drought and water issues. But this isn’t the first time water decision making has been less than transparent. When Nevada and Utah were negotiating the division of the waters of Snake Valley which straddles our eastern border, the Nevada negotiating team comprised only state officials and SNWA honchos. There was absolutely no representation on the Nevada team from rural areas and water users to be directly affected. The negotiations were closed to the public, with participants sworn to secrecy. (Ultimately the agreement was not signed by the Utah governor).

Similarly when federal agencies withdrew their protests in 2006 over SNWA’s massive water withdrawal in Spring Valley, just west of Great Basin National Park, the feds and SNWA entered into a confidential “stipulated agreement” process for monitoring the effects of pumping. Again, rural local governments, Tribes and the public were shut out of the process and the meetings, with the blessing of the Nevada State Engineer.

Looking at the Nevada Drought Forum website, of the 23 partners, only one represents rural areas and interests. Whether you support or oppose Southern Nevada Water Authority’s audacious pipeline project to move high desert underground water from eastern Nevada south to ensure continued growth without limit, it’s clear back room power plays have a downside. Excluding the public and leadership of Nevada’s wide open spaces from the drought forum conference table further divides the state and ultimately brings Nevada no closer to coping with the effects of drought on a statewide basis. This failure is the antithesis of the Governor’s “New Nevada.”

It’s not too late for the governor and the state officials on the Drought Forum board to make public participation a priority. It’s not just the right thing to do; it’s also one of the few ways outcomes of the Forum may have a chance to serve the entire State of Nevada.

Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City, and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.


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