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As the Utah Legislature Winds Down, Nevada’s Heats Up

State legislative sessions are topsy-turvy affairs. There are usually highs and lows –– or, in terms of water, deluge and drought. Spurts of legislative flashpoints interject periods of what may seem like calm. However, in legislative-water parlance, the year 2023 is a flood year. The focus on water and the interest in water is unlike any other we’ve seen in Nevada and Utah.

Lawmakers want to understand and prepare themselves. And, of course, want to appear as part of the solution — which they inevitably have to be. Constituents want action. Lobbyists want to make clients happy. And it is that crossroads where the public interest, lawmakers’ interests, and the interest of clients meet to make statutes. Action for some is a disaster for others –– and vice versa.

GBWN exists for the public interest. We don’t owe anyone anything. But we do carry a belief that we owe future generations a chance at having some water left over. We do believe that water shouldn’t be taken from one to enrich another. We do believe that officials need to be held accountable under the standards set forth under the law.

And that is why, thanks to folks like you, we can afford to have eyes and ears on the ground –– every day –– in the halls of the Capitols in Nevada and Utah.

In Utah, there have been ongoing debates about turf removal, government edicts on landscape watering, incentives for farming, and more bureaucratic agencies tasked with overseeing how the public can both use water and keep a few drops in places like the Great Salt Lake. We will give you the latest update below on where the big picture items stand below as less than one week remains in that state’s session.

In Nevada, it is still too early to tell where things are going. There are discussions — without bill releases — about how we manage single sources of supplies throughout multiple basins, update perennial yields, and better recognize the connection between surface and groundwater. And of course, whether we like it or not, there are no doubts that entities are dreaming up language that would allow regulators to squeeze water from rocks under the guise of flowery jargon. We are working to make sure that doesn’t become law.

Furthermore, in Nevada, we have seen bills released to tackle groundwater management with a water rights retirement account, expanded authority for counties to create groundwater oversight boards, and efforts to ensure that management in over-pumped areas remains under the auspices of senior rights in Nevada’s 256 hydrographic basins. None of these have yet to have a hearing. But that will change on Thursday when SB113, which would change how groundwater management plans emerge, is up for a hearing.

On the Colorado River, there is a bill to mandate the removal of septic tanks in Clark County and give the SNWA expanded powers to curtail water use in the Las Vegas Valley when Lake Mead hits critical elevations.

Right now, it seems, the only thing that has slowed down the pace of the legislature are the snowstorms interrupting flights and commutes into Carson City. Leave it to Mother Nature to give us a little water as we all debate the future of how humans use it in the heart of the Great Basin.

Here is a more in-depth analysis of what’s happening in Carson City and Salt Lake City.

The SNWA Omnibus

It's better than a pipeline. Much better.

For the Nevada Legislature, a 60-page water bill is not the status quo. However, considering the circumstances on the Colorado River, we are adapting to a new normal in real-time. AB220 gives the SNWA the authority to rip out the 15,000 or so septic systems in its service area while covering at least 50 percent of the cost — which will be subsidized with COVID money that former Governor Sisolak outlaid for water. Those funds will be distributed with the help of another bill, AB20.

Property owners will then be tied into the regional sewer system. This will allow SNWA to treat that water and send it to Lake Mead for return flow credits. The bill also gives the SNWA’s general manager the ability to impose restrictions once Lake Mead hits critical elevations during shortage declarations (which have already been declared). In the same vein, the bill also gives SNWA the ability to limit residential use to half an acre-foot per year — which for the majority of residents won’t be a problem because it is what they already do. 

It also affirms the SNWA’s ability to deny serving developments based on whether the agency believes there are sufficient quantities of water for the “reasonably foreseeable needs” of the development.
AB220 also requires non-residential properties that irrigate more than 20,000 square feet of turf in Southern Nevada to install monitoring equipment and create new standards for irrigation fixtures in the region. And, as an insurance policy of sorts, AB220 prohibits new turf anywhere except for schools, parks, and cemeteries.

Across the west cities are still grappling with how to handle aridity and shortage (wait till you hear about Utah). But, at the very least, we can believe that SNWA is going the extra mile to repurpose every drop.

The legislation is largely focused on provisions that directly affect Clark County aside from a few mentions of the groundwater chapter in NRS. GBWN is reviewing the sections that could have an impact on water rights outside of the greater Las Vegas metropolitan area, and we are confident that this isn’t a major trojan horse.

But for any urban entity in the west looking to prepare for the worst and hope for the best, the SNWA’s playbook –– for now –– is where they should be looking.

AB220 is cheaper than importation, good for Lake Mead, and considerate of watersheds throughout the state that won’t be pressured into supplying Las Vegas’ patch of the Mojave Desert.  That’s something we can support.

Do You Care About Due Process?

Due process issues are near and dear to the hearts of GBWN. We believe that members of the public and water rights users have a basic right to know about what corporations or governments want to do with the state’s limited water resources. Last week there was a hearing on AB34, which would radically change how water rights users are notified of new appropriations, change applications, and other administrative functions of the State of Nevada.

AB34 would limit how citizens and water rights users learn about how corporations, government entities, and others want to use their water by changing the publication requirements for notices filed in the office of the state engineer. AB34 impacts due process issues because it could severely limit how water rights owners and the public learn about who is applying for new water, who is changing points of diversion, who is switching the manner of use, and who is filing to prove up their water rights.

The issues of due process come into play because the state has an obligation to notify property owners and the public. If it doesn’t properly do so, that could infringe on the due process and constitutional rights of Nevadans. The bill would require that notice only be published for one week and posted at a public library. Right now, there is a guarantee that notices be published for four weeks. This bill takes away that guarantee.

The genesis of AB34, brought forth by the State Engineer, purportedly stems from a publishing problem with some rural newspapers. While we understand that the newspaper industry isn’t what it once was, we don’t think that we should be lowering the standard from a guaranteed 4 weeks of publication to a guarantee of one week, which is what the bill does.

GBWN helped assemble a coalition of NGOs and good government advocates to help stop AB34 in its current form. We stood alongside rural counties and others to demand real accountability. We are working on compromises to guarantee more transparency in a changing digital age.

We have successfully litigated over issues of noticing requirements in a case that went to the Nevada Supreme Court and believe that we must constantly apply pressure to ensure that our system of government is working in the best interest of communities.

On the sliding scale of transparency, we must ensure that the Legislature ensures more –– not less –– information about what’s happening with our water resources.

Pete G's Farewell Tour

The groundwater chapters in NRS can be intimidating for new lawmakers who largely represent Clark County — where the preponderance of folks rely on the Colorado River. But for lawmakers on the Senate Natural Resources Committee, there will be opportunities to dive into legislation that could help evolve how we manage the aquifer systems of the state. And they will have Senator Pete Goicoechea leading the way.

Senator Goicoechea, long the dean of water policy in the legislature, has the respect of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. In his final session, he is shepherding a number of bills on his farewell tour. But he is also being explicit in his warnings: The problems we see in places like Diamond Valley are emerging elsewhere. We have to get a grip. We need to do more. We hope that his fellow lawmakers heed some of his calls this session.  Below are the Senator’s proposed groundwater efforts.

First, it’s important to mention one item where this is not yet a bill to make change. No one is doing more than the Senator to finally get new perennial yield estimates throughout the state. In other words, the Senator is demanding that we update the outdated and often inaccurate estimates of how much groundwater is available in a given basin.  Right now there isn’t a bill or a firm appropriation. But we know that is being worked on. And we will be there every step of the way to help if needed.

As the Senator often says: We need the science. We agree. Here are a few of the bills that are in play: 

SB176 is paramount in helping to revamp groundwater management. It would create an account to retire water rights. In concept, this is a great bill. There are two issues, however: filling it with money and ensuring that the money cannot be spent to retire “paper” water rights.

Diamond Valley is the poster child for how this could work. In addition to having heightened on-the-ground management and pumping reductions, the money could buy people out and guarantee that the water would no longer be put to beneficial use in order to help bring the basin back into the valley. This has yet to have a hearing. But we will be providing updates as soon as we know more.

SB180 requires the State Engineer to appoint local groundwater boards if it’s requested by a County Commission. Right now, the State Engineer doesn’t have to create a board even if an official from a county requests one.

SB102 appropriates $1 million for rural communities to develop groundwater management plans. While the plans don’t have the effect of law, it will be a good exercise for communities to account for and prepare for what will likely be a drier, more variable future.

SB112 guarantees that basin assessment funds collected to help restore and revive basins cannot be used as a slush fund for other priorities or needs of the Division of Water Resources. This is a bill that guarantees that funds water users pay to help bring back basins actually go to the basin in need. During the worst months of COVID, there were attempts to redirect those funds. This will prevent that in the future.

SB113’s genesis comes from Diamond Valley. It would ensure that, moving forward, senior rights holders have more protections in the management of over-pumped basins during the creation of Groundwater Management Plans (GMPs), a statutory tool to help curtail over-pumped basins.

A Nevada Supreme Court ruling on the Diamond Valley GMP this Summer opened the door for managing outside the confines of priority doctrine — potentially giving junior pumpers the ability to team up on senior rights holders to protect their own interests. SB113 protects senior rights holders from ever being in that position. The debate right now is whether the bill will, in a de facto sense, prevent GMPs from ever being pursued in basins again. Some think it is a possibility. Others think that it could actually propel senior rights holders into action in over-pumped basins, giving them an opportunity to plan for the inevitable. There are other power dynamics that could emerge that we are considering as we review the bill. However, one provision provides a 10-year time frame to test the effectiveness of a GMP and requires the State Engineer to curtail by strict priority in a basin where a GMP is not working. That is something that should already be in the law.

Is Utah Creating More Bureaucracy or Meaningful Policy?

First off, our top goal of the legislative session in Utah was making sure Cedar City didn’t gain one inch, one dollar, or one drop of water in its pursuit of its West Desert Water Grab.

And so far, we believe that we have been successful. But we are well aware of skullduggery that can occur in the final minutes of any legislative session. We are on guard and ready to act.

We are also on the lookout for Colorado River shenanigans. And, as you will read below, there are tens of millions of dollars that could be floating down to Washington County.  

But, in the big picture, the demise of the Great Salt Lake seemingly pushed lawmakers into action when they gathered in the Capitol in mid-January to kick off the state’s legislative session.

State lawmakers have acted to create multiple new government entities as a means for helping manage the great salt lake, optimize agriculture, and limit wasteful urban watering. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been thrown around. But the question is this: in conservative Utah, are lawmakers actually spending money on policies that will replenish the Great Salt Lake, benefit the Colorado River Communities, rip up useless turf, equitably fallow fields, and implement better water management?

What we can say now is that there was a lot of promise to spend money on freeing up wet water. But those auspices were dimmed a bit as the session went on.

The Legislature is only appropriating $5 million for turf removal — the same amount that was doled out last session. It’s providing some tax incentives for homebuilders to install efficient sprinkler systems. Over the years, the SNWA has spent hundreds of millions.

However, HB272, HB450, SB191, and others are likely to make it across the finish line in some way and will stop government entities, HOAs, community associations, and others from prohibiting more efficient, Waterwise landscaping (yes, that has been happening). That is a start and is centered around the philosophy that Utahns will pay for it themselves — which we hope is ultimately true. But incentives sure do help — as we have seen in Vegas.

HB538 limits retail and secondary water suppliers from furnishing water to customers for growing lawns during the period of October 1 to April 25  (though there is an exemption for sod growers). The supplier of the water must calculate the water saved. Originally this was supposed to take those water savings and send them to the Great Salt Lake. But that got stripped out of the bill.

HB307 creates Utah Water Ways, an entity that looks more like a PR machine than anything else aimed at reducing water use. And that is accompanied by  HB491, which creates a Great Salt Lake Commissioner and a new agency tasked with preaching the gospel of conservation and looking for more water to fill the lake.

SB277 is the big money bill and has implications for Southern and Northern Utah. It appropriates $325 million to cut agricultural usage along GSL tributaries and creates an Optimization Committee inside the state Agriculture Department. The money can also go toward water reuse, dam building, desalination, and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin. That latter point sounds well and good. But, as we have seen in Washington County before, they can throw good money after bad. We hope that won’t be the case.

Keep Doing Your Snow Dances

Whatever you all are doing to keep the snow coming, keep it up. We are grateful for your support and your reading of this newsletter. Enjoy these moments. The dry years will be back. And we all know: The sand stays. The water goes.

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