To conserve, Nevada may try to buy back groundwater rights
CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Marty Plaskett upgraded his farming equipment and spent $60,000 on new sprinklers to conserve water, even before the rural Nevada valley where he farms alfalfa began more strictly managing groundwater.
Now, Plaskett is weighing another adjustment: selling off part of his legal right to use water that lies under his land to the state.
Even after a wet winter, Nevada and much of the West are still dealing with the effects of a prolonged drought that depleted groundwater supplies. Lawmakers in Nevada are considering a bill to allow the state to buy groundwater rights in diminished basins so nobody could use them again.
In the area where Plaskett farms, the state severely overestimated decades ago just how much water was available from wells sunk deep into fractured rock and gravel.
The Legislature hasn't determined how much farmers would be paid to give up some rights to groundwater.
“It would mainly come down to, number one, the price,” said Plaskett, 57.
States throughout the West are grappling with similar issues over how to conserve water deep underground in a variety of political landscapes where experts are skeptical water basins can ever return to sustainable levels. Conservation alone will not be enough, experts say.
California implemented a system in 2014 that requires regional agencies to manage groundwater sustainability plans in places where there was little oversight. The state's lawmakers last year proposed spending $1.5 billion to buy senior water rights, but the idea didn’t have enough support.
Arizona passed sweeping groundwater management legislation in 1980, though experts said the state isn’t on track to ensure what is pumped out is recharged by 2025.
“It’s an indication of this big, transitional time that Western states are in,” said Sarah Porter, executive director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “We’re taking a different view of groundwater these days."
Much of the spotlight over water scarcity in Nevada has been on the Las Vegas metropolitan area, which relies almost exclusively on the Colorado River. But in large swaths of rural Nevada, more groundwater exists on paper than is actually available.
Several decades ago, Nevada's semi-arid landscape was promoted as a place where groundwater was plentiful. The state didn't have a good way to determine just how much water was under the land surface at the time but doled out rights to use it.
Those parched landscapes have gotten a temporary reprieve by way of a historically wet winter. But the precipitation won’t be enough to pull rural areas out of a drought or refill aquifers.
Other groundwater buyback programs exist across the West. But — unlike the one proposed in Nevada — many are limited to specific regions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also works with various states to purchase water rights in areas of intense drought. Nevada looked to basins in southeast Oregon and Colorado as models for the proposed program.
The Nevada bill — still awaiting a Senate committee vote — could be amended further as its sponsor, Republican state Sen. Pete Goicoechea, addresses concerns over implementation and funding, including the $5 million price tag that some say isn't enough. Proponents are looking for additional funding from the federal government or outside parties that could help foot the bill.
And some are grappling with a lingering question of whether the state should pay for irrigators to give up their rights to water that could eventually be curtailed anyway as drought deepens.
At a recent bill hearing, Jake Tibbitts, natural resources manager for rural Eureka County in central Nevada, said the state is responsible for over-allocating water rights in areas that have then seen tight-knit farming communities pop up.
“Frankly, the state’s culpable on that and needs to provide some soft landing ability for some of these folks,” he said.
In about half the water basins in Nevada, there's more water on paper than actual water. And a growing number of basins aren't being replenished at the rate they're being pumped, according to the Nevada Division of Water Resources.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Diamond Valley, about 300 miles (482 kilometers) north of Las Vegas where Plaskett lives on his 1,600-acre (647-hectare) farm. In 2015, the state designated it a critical management area, the strictest regulation for drought management.
The state Supreme Court set new precedent last year when it ruled that management plans for these types of critical areas, which are regulated by Nevada's top water official, can deviate from a longstanding hierarchy of water rights determined by seniority.
Goicoechea, a third-generation rancher, said he expects those designations to increase in the coming years. Another bill in the state Legislature would require a review of any groundwater management plan every 10 years.
If both bills pass, lower-priority water users in Diamond Valley could see water cuts sooner than under the current 35-year plan. But Goicoechea said that could provide an incentive for them to sell rights under the proposed buyback program.
“I think before they get to year 10, those people will start looking at it and saying, ‘Hey, there’s a way we can balance this bacon,'” Goicoechea said.
Micheline Fairbank, deputy administrator of the Nevada Division of Water Resources, said the agency isn't planning to create more critical management areas, even in basins that could qualify. Rather, the agency encourages more localized plans before it would consider the “most extreme regulatory tool,” she said.
Plaskett’s family bought the property in Diamond Valley in the 1960s, before the area had electricity and at a time the state thought there would be four times the amount of water available than what exists today.
Plaskett, a recently elected Eureka County commissioner who has lower-priority water rights, isn't sure if he'll sell any to the state. He wonders what else he could sustain on his land or if he could grow the same amount of alfalfa and grass with less water.
“There’s so many different things to consider,” he said. “But it’s really hard to talk about until the price structure starts to develop and we get further into the groundwater management plan.”
Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Follow him on Twitter: @gabestern326