Lucas M Thomas, The Spectrum Aug. 7, 2017 |
In the desert, water is the paramount resource.
That’s why a large portion of the debate surrounding Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s review of two Nevada national monuments — Gold Butte and Basin and Range — involves access to water rights that exist within the boundaries of both designations.
For the Virgin Valley Water District, five of its six springs are located within the boundaries of Gold Butte National Monument, prompting VVWD General Manager Kevin Brown to formally request that Zinke either remove the springs from the designation, or strengthen the language of the proclamation to allow “unfettered access” to developing the district’s water resources.
During a 10-minute meeting while Zinke conducted his formal review tour last week, Brown said he provided Zinke with a “side-by-side comparison of what we requested and what was in the proclamation to give him an idea of why we felt like the proclamation language isn’t as strong as it should be, and requested the boundary alignment be adjusted.”
Brown said that the concern isn’t that existing water rights are unprotected, rather that the designation does not allow for the development of those water rights, if necessary.
“Our board of directors has been saying for a couple of years now, we just want to make sure our sources are outside of the boundary, or we have protection in whatever language there is to make sure we have full access to be able to do what we need to on the mountain to bring the water down the mountain when we need to,” he said.
That could potentially involve additional infrastructure.
Brown expressed during the June 27 Mesquite City Council meeting that the spring water on the Virgin Mountains, located inside the monument designation, which provides water to Mesquite and Bunkerville, may be the first part of the district’s water portfolio that will be developed once a groundwater cap has been reached.
For that reason, Brown — and the city council, which cited concerns about the city’s water rights when it passed a resolution with a 4-1 vote supporting Zinke’s review — felt the language did not go far enough in specifying how the district might be able to develop those resources.
Brown said he felt his request was well heard by Zinke, though he added the interior secretary didn’t provide any indication about what his ultimate decision. “I’m not a very good poker player and I think he is,” Brown said. “He didn’t tip his hand one way or another and I couldn’t read his face very well.”
During the city council meeting, parallels were drawn between what could possibly happen in the Virgin Valley with what is currently happening in Lincoln County, where water officials are toiling with the 2015 designation of Basin and Range National Monument.
Wade Poulsen, general manager of Lincoln County Water District, said the Basin and Range designation has complicated matters in one of Nevada’s most remote and rural areas.
“The biggest thing is they say that you don’t lose your water rights, which they are right. You don’t lose your water rights,” Poulsen explained. “But what they do is they prohibit the ability to move those water rights or to use them. So they aren’t taking the water rights away, but how do you use them? If you don’t have the right of ways already designated, if you don’t have the infrastructure already in, how can you put the infrastructure in? The only way is through a right of way. So now you have to go through the management plan of the national monument.”
Poulsen also pointed out that the ultimate decision pertaining to right of ways rests with the appointed manager of the national monument.
He argued that sporadic turnover at that position leads to “constantly getting new perspectives and opinions on how the management plan should be implemented,” which adds layers of bureaucracy and makes attaining right of way access cost prohibitive and time consuming.
Poulsen said that when Basin and Range was designated in 2015, it halted efforts Lincoln County was making to gain more control of the land in the county.
“In our situation with Basin and Range, we were trying to get land released and when they made it into the national monument, you can no longer release land. All of a sudden our water rights become null and void,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is trying to get the national monument at least downsized in the aspect where you could possibly get some land released.”
Poulsen was able to meet with Zinke in Pahrump in late June, but was unable to meet with the secretary when his Nevada visit was cut a day short last week. Despite having his meeting cancelled, Poulsen said he was able to express his concerns to Zinke in Pahrump, and said he felt they were well received.
“For a county to survive, much like Clark County has done, a county has to be able to develop their natural resources. If they cannot develop their natural resources inside the county boundaries, then a county becomes a welfare county, because natural resources is what drives the economy in rural areas,” he said.
Designating the area a national monument, Poulsen said, significantly limits opportunities to implement necessary infrastructure the water district may need.
“We’re not against preserving the land, in fact we call for it,” he said. “We think we’re great stewards of the land, but you can’t just take these large tracts of land without having a cause and effect.”