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More willing water rights sellers in NV than money, say water regulators

The state Division of Water Resources recently reported about 35 miles of dry channel with no flow on the Humboldt River. (Credit: Colton Brunson, Water Commissioner, Nevada Division of Water Resources)

Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current
March 26, 2024

Landowners in Nevada have been more than willing to surrender their groundwater rights in exchange for cash payments thanks to a water conservation program financed by the federal government, said state water regulators — but time and money are running out.

Lack of storage infrastructure, drought, and warming trends have led to long-term over-pumping of groundwater basins in northern and central Nevada. 

Throughout the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority region — an agency created to proactively address water resource issues in the region — there are 25 over-appropriated groundwater basins, eight of which are also over-pumped. 

An over-pumped basin is one that is pumped at a greater rate than it is replenished. For example, Humboldt County in northern Nevada has nearly 760,000 acre-feet of committed groundwater rights, but only about 469,000 acre-feet of water is actually available any given year without depleting the groundwater reservoir. Antelope Valley and the Middle Reese River Valley in Humboldt County have shown “sharply declining groundwater levels,” said Jeff Fontaine, the executive director of the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority and the Humboldt River Basin Water Authority.

“There’s no doubt that groundwater pumping in the Humboldt Basin has affected surface flows,” said Fontaine during a meeting of the Interim Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Public Lands last week.

Eureka’s Diamond Valley, a small farming community in central Nevada, is the state’s only “critical management area,” as designated by the Nevada State Water Engineer. The designation means the valley’s groundwater levels are rapidly declining, and groundwater rights holders in the area are required to create a plan to address over-pumping or risk losing their rights.

The Voluntary Water Rights Retirement Program received $15 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding in 2022 to address groundwater conflicts by purchasing groundwater rights from private landowners in over-pumped and over-appropriated basins in northern and central Nevada communities. 

The program is only available for landowners in Churchill, Elko, Esmeralda, Eureka, Humboldt, Lander, Nye, Pershing and White Pine counties.

So far, 13 applicants have volunteered to sell their water rights under the program, said Fontaine. Five applicants in the Humboldt Basin have agreed to sell a total of 12,887 acre-feet of water rights for a total cost of $11.6M. In Diamond Valley, eight applicants have agreed to sell 11,895 acre-feet of groundwater rights for a total cost of $10.4M.

“We’re working with each of the applicants to purchase and retire water rights until we run out of money and we have until September of this year to complete the program,” said Fontaine.

If state water regulators do not use the federal funding by the September 30 deadline, the program will lose that funding. Fontaine assured state lawmakers during a recent meeting of the Interim Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Public Landst that the program is on track to meet the deadline.

“We weren’t sure we were gonna be able to get enough willing sellers,” said Fontaine. “But we have plenty of willing sellers. We have more willing sellers than we have money.”

Fontaine urged lawmakers to establish a statewide voluntary water rights retirement program based on the success of the limited program currently available for central and northern Nevada. 

Throughout several parts of Nevada, significantly more groundwater is extracted than is returned to aquifers each year, leading to declining groundwater and flows statewide. Nevada has committed water rights for 1.5 times the approximately 2 million acre-feet of available groundwater. About 56 of the state’s water basins are currently over-pumped, according to the Legislative Counsel Bureau’s Research Division.

Republican Nevada State Senator Pete Goicoechea sponsored a bill in 2023 that would have created a statewide program to buy and retire water rights. But the legislation never made it to the floor for a vote.

During the Subcommittee on Public Lands meeting, Goicoechea expressed concern that current program funding was being used to buy water rights that are not actively being used, which would do little to address the shrinking aquifers in northern and central Nevada. 

Fontaine conceded that not all the purchased water rights were actively being used, but the application process was designed to weed out water rights sellers who have not pumped over the last five years.

“At the end of the day, it’s been my experience, at least for this program, very few water right holders are pumping,” Fontaine said. “We are undoubtedly purchasing water that hasn’t been pumped. But we are purchasing valid water rights. So for the water we are purchasing that has been pumped, we’re making an immediate impact on the basin. For those water rights that haven’t been pumped, we’re preventing future problems.”

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This article is republished from Nevada Current under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.