By Heather Emmons
NRCS Nevada Public Affairs Specialist
Founded as a Mormon colony in 1864, Panaca was the first permanent settlement by European Americans in southern Nevada. The first year they arrived, they built an irrigation ditch that ran from Panaca Spring to the town. A concrete pipeline followed in 1917. Both were critical to the growth and development of the town, supplying water for domestic and agricultural purposes.
At just under 1,000 residents today, about 10 percent of Panaca’s residents are water users—or shareholders—of this irrigation system that was built over a century ago. For years, the pipeline was leaking, and a lot of the water was not even reaching their land, and to compensate, they would need even more water. Each year, the townspeople drain Panaca Spring to check the water flow and enable them to crawl through the pipes to clean out the tree roots and other debris invading the cracks in the pipes, a dangerous and laborious effort.
Community Comes Together
The town—along with the pipeline—had reached a breaking point. Ten shareholders stepped forward and obtained Environmental Quality Incentive Program contracts with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to each tackle one tenth of the total project—replacing a whopping 11,300 feet, or more than two miles, of pipeline. For this community effort, people contributed what they could—either financially or by volunteering with boots on the ground—to complete the mighty project, all while working around everyone’s irrigation schedules to keeping the water flowing.
“The main purpose of the pipeline is to irrigate pastures, some crop lands and alfalfa hay ground, and as it goes through town there’s some little side users that still benefit from it—those people with a backyard garden, some of them have fruit trees,” said Cory Lytle, Ely District Conservationist.
“The overall deterioration of the concrete was getting to the point where we felt it was something we had to find a solution to. The NRCS was able to work out a plan to help us get started and see it through,” said Dennis Sonnenberg, former Water Board President and project lead.
Keeping the Water Flowing
Because the water users could not go for days without water, they put the pipeline in while the water was running through the old pipeline.
“We were going side by side (with the old and new lines) and it caused a lot of issues because of the leaks in the pipe—anywhere from swampy conditions to filling our trench up with water and whenever we’d get close to the old pipeline, we would have problems with it sloughing off because it was just over saturated. But we were able to manage, negotiate and go around all the obstacles and we finally made it to the end.”
The townspeople are pleased with the improvement.
“They’ve noticed that they haven’t had to fight the neighbor for water, which is the goal. That’s what we want to do is conserve the water and put it where it needs to go, not where it wants to go. Also, we’ve upgraded the way the water boxes are delivering the water to them so it’s a lot cleaner, a lot easier to turn the water on and off,” said Dennis.
Kevin Phillips, a producer and project partner, raises hay on about 20 acres of land his grandfather owned when he came to Panaca in the 1860s. He sees a significant difference with the new pipeline.
“It’s been just a gravity flow ditch and the toughest part with the ditches is that you’d wait for your water for 30 minutes because there were so many weeds that it had to get through before it got to you,” said Phillips. “It’s really helped us with the water usage and the ability to put it where we needed it.”
Lee Maughan, another producer and project partner, irrigates about three and a half acres of sod he sells.
“Because I’m raising sod, I have to have water pretty much all the time, and so when Dennis took on the project to redo the line, I thought he was nuts,” Maughan said with a chuckle. “I knew how much work was involved. . . I didn’t think it was in that bad of shape until we started tearing into it. Then when we got kind of a deadline where we had to have it finished, and he wanted the water to be shut off for a couple of weeks. I can’t do that (because) then my sod will burn up.”
Maughan had no choice but to jump in and help, and he did so for two years. What he saw shocked him.
“What I saw from the first section was it was really bad. The pipeline was broken, and the water was running outside the pipeline.”
New Pipeline, New Challenges
“The old pipeline had a lot of friction loss with all the debris slowing the flow down, so what was coming in at the head wasn’t getting down to the bottom,” said Lytle.
That all quickly improved with the new pipeline, creating a different challenge. The water pressure was so greatly improved, they had to install a valve to slow down the water, so it could go out to the first four users’ outlets on the line.
“I’ve seen a big difference in the volume and delivery of the water down to us since we’ve put the new main line in,” said Philips. “That water just really flows nice and smooth and we have very little loss. The volume is almost scary.”
“They’re going to see the full allotment of the water through the pipe. To me, we’ve addressed the resource concerns of inefficient use of the irrigation water. What’s going in is going down, and they’re going to get their shares and not have to take more to make up for what they were losing,” said Lytle. “As we say, putting conservation on the ground.”
A water share used to be 150 gallons a minute, every eight days for 12 hours. It was reduced to 130 gallons a minute for that same amount of time. Now, they will be able to return to the original amount.
“When you’re watering four or five acres in your backyard for your pasture, it really adds up,” said Sonnenberg. “I’m grateful that we had so much help, I really am. We’ve had people that have donated a week of their time just to put this project together. And I’m grateful to the NRCS for giving us the resources to put this together, because it wouldn’t happen without them.”USDA offers a variety of risk management, disaster assistance, loan, and conservation programs to help agricultural producers in the United States weather ups and downs in the market and recover from natural disasters as well as invest in improvements to their operations. Learn about additional programs at: farmers.gov. For more information about USDA programs and services, contact your local USDA service center. To watch the video about this project, visit the NRCS Nevada YouTube channel and watch the story here: