Mark Twain once said, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.” And the debate goes on even today in the halls of the state legislative session in Carson City.

One in particular is Senate bill 81 which revises provisions relating to the management and appropriation of water.
State Senator Pete Goicoechea, chairman of the Senate Government Affairs Committee, noted in his weekly telephone conference call that SB 81, “is intended to work as a groundwater management plan for water that comes from the ground up.”

He said legislators have been very careful not to get any kind of a duty in there. When first introduced the bill allowed the state water engineer to be able to impose a duty on half-an-area water foot. “The state engineer (Jason King) and I differ on several points and places in water law. Can there be a duty placed on domestic wells? He says yes, and I say no. It can only be imposed on two-acre feet.”

Goicoechea said there will not be any more legislation on vested water issues in this session of the legislature, but said “existing law is what it is today, and I guess at some point it will probably have to be decided in the courts just how much existing authority the state water engineer has.”

Lincoln County Water District Manager Wade Poulsen said SB 81 is not expected to have any impact on Lincoln County, “at least not directly. It doesn’t have any immediate reflection on the County.”

He said the bill will allow the state engineer “to take some action in ‘critically managed water basins’, meaning there is more water going out of the basin than what is coming in. The only two basins that are at that point now are the Pahrump Valley in Nye County and Diamond Valley, a little north of Eureka.”

SB 81 is intended to give the state engineer some language to take action, Poulsen said, “because the biggest problem is the question of since the basin is over appropriated, who do you take the water from? And whoever you take the water from, it creates an economic issue. Do you take the water from the irrigator, from the agriculture side, from the mining side, the residential and municipality side, where do you start to take away the water rights? Everybody is affected and nobody wants to give it up, so with everyone speaking for themselves in the public workshops on the issue, you are right back to where you started.”

In Lincoln County, Poulsen said the bill, if passed, might have some impact down the road because Panaca and Pahranagat Valley are what are called “closed basins,” meaning no more water can be appropriated from them, because the amount already appropriated is at the level or exceeds the perennial yield.” Fortunately, he said, “the Panaca and Pahranagat Valley basins do recharge over time. If there might ever be a time when the water levels do drop dramatically, we would then be subject to SB 81.”

Goicoechea has said it is very important that concerned citizens make sure to tell him and his committee what they do and do not want in the bill, so it can be worked in such a way to be of long lasting benefit.
Another point on which he said he and King disagree is whether a person may forfeit surface water rights because of non-use? King says yes, Goicoechea says no.

Goicoechea said even if SB 81 is passed, these very same domestic well issues are going to be heard in court.
He said, “It is important to look at the tools (language) that is in 81 and what’s already in existing law. If 81 does not pass, I still believe the state engineer will come down and attempt to regulate your domestic wells, by priority. And/or he is convinced he can adjust the duty.”

For communities that put a local ground water plan together, Goicoechea said, “You have the tools to not call for proof of benefits or use in five years and not having to pump water just to maintain the right to have the water.”
He said he has worked hard on the bill in the Senate “to make sure there is nothing in there that impacts a domestic right, or any right for that matter, or a vested right.”

In addition, Goicoechea said there are other questions that deal with percolating water rights from as far back as 1905 that will have to be dealt with by the courts, not by this current legislative session.

Others have said there seems to be a continual effort to come after domestic wells to balance the water out, and not following existing law. Some opponents of SB 81, as first drafted, said, “The state engineer is trying to fix mistakes that were made in the past on the backs of the domestic well owners, and by doing that the people who have invested in property, horses and livestock, and their own lifestyle, would be drastically impacted to the negative. Still others have commented the powers of the state water engineer could literally destroy the rural lifestyle in Nevada for the benefit of special interests.

Goicoechea said down the road with this issue, especially in Nye County and the Pahrump basin, there are likely to be some real problems.