Nevada Newsmakers

Longtime lawmaker Goicoechea sees water fight at Legislature; remains wary of SNWA hold on rural water sources

News - April 9, 2021

This 2021 Legislature is shaping up to be critical for water users in urban and rural Nevada, state Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said on Nevada Newsmakers.

Goicoechea's assessment is reminiscent of the Old West adage -- sometimes credited to historic Nevada journalist Mark Twain -- that "whiskey's for drinkin' and water's for fightin'."

"This session (of the Legislature), there are some bills that are truly scary," Goicoechea told host Sam Shad. "I think we are trending toward a complete change in water law.

"It is really concerning to me," he added. "We are trying to move away from priority right, which is the old, 'first in time, first in right,' which is the basis of Nevada water law and which makes it one of the best."

Goicoechea, a rancher from Eureka County and a former legendary Eureka County commissioner, sees trouble looming away from Carson City, too.

Although the Southern Nevada Water District announced last year it was ending plans for $15-billion pipeline project to transfer water from rural White Pine County to the thirsty Las Vegas area, Goicoechea said SNWA's threat to rural Nevada water sources is far from over.

"You have to be honest about it," said Goicoechea, who is in his 10th legislative session, spanning years as an assemblyman and state senator. "Southern Nevada is going to need some water from some place. And they still do have those water rights (in rural Nevada). They do own water in those valleys. They bought those ranches and clearly own the water rights that go along with them."

Goicoechea, however, is further concerned that the SNWA can tap into rural ground water without a pipeline

A 2017 directive from the Legislature for the Nevada Division of Water Resources recognized hydrological connections of various groundwater sites in Nevada. The order formally combined six hydrographic basins and a portion of a seventh into a single basin, according to news reports.

"My biggest concern, and I think it is everyone's concern, is ... maybe they (Southern Nevada Water Authority officials) don't need a pipeline."

Since the aquifers are connected, it may be reasoned that water in Eastern or Northern Nevada is flowing into ground sources in Southern Nevada, Goicoechea said.

"You could say this basin (in Southern Nevada) is technically, hydro-logically connected to the basin father north," Goicoechea said. "And it is the same water, especially when you get into the deep carbonate flows. So therefore we can pump it out down in Southern Nevada and we're really only pumping the water that is ours in Northern Nevada.".

The senator paused, then added, "I know it's wild."

At the Legislature, Goicoechea is concerned proposals of "water-banking" would override prevailing waters laws that govern surface and ground water rights.

One proposal would allow for basins to create “banks” where surface and groundwater rights holders can sell or lease water they conserve. The practice is becoming more prevalent as Western U.S. states face a drier future, and is being used now in Utah and Colorado, according to The Associated Press.

"If you look at some of these scenarios, the water conservation, the water banking, there is going to be the ability to go in there and take a haircut and dedicate part of that water to, i.e. in part to a state or bank," he said. "Then, with the remainder, you would be able to hold it into perpetuity with no beneficial use. It is going to allow for the capitalization of water and that is truly a mistake.

"The water in this state belongs to the people in this state and if you end up creating laws and putting it in a position where it can actually be held forever, by an entity, you are going to see the price of water skyrocket."

Goicoechea is also wary of the role of a New York-based hedge fund in Nevada's tussle over water. Water Asset Management has reportedly purchased water rights from farmers in central Nevada’s Humboldt River basin, in Colorado’s Grand Valley and in central Arizona, according to The Associated Press.

Goicoechea is concerned Water Asset Management wants to export the Humboldt River water out of the area, leaving Nevada farmers and ranchers high and dry.

"I don't think there is any doubt that the water in that Humboldt basin is held by Water Assets and is intended to be exported out of the Humboldt," Goicoechea said. "It can't happen. The Humboldt is completely over appropriated, the ground water, resources along those edges.

"Somebody is going to have to come up with legislation that says, 'Hey, until these basins are in balance, you can't export from them," he said. "And to bring the Humboldt into balance would never happen. Not in 100 years."

The battle over water this legislative session has taken Goicoechea by surprise.

"I thought it would be a ho-hum session compared to the last session  where there were 13 bills," he said. "And it seemed like it took forever and we never got any of them out, really. Sometimes that's good when it comes to Nevada water law."

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