Las Vegas Sun

September 26, 2022

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Some see California water settlement as bad sign for Nevada

Hoover Dam Bypass Project

Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

The Colorado River winds its way through Black Canyon south of the Hoover Dam Bypass on Aug. 19, 2010.

What happens in California holds sway over many of Nevada’s most important industries: Californians populate the state’s casinos, they are the state’s best would-be buyers of renewable energy, and now, they may be setting a standard for how Nevada’s scarce water resources will be allocated in the future.

Or at least that is what Nevada, along with a host of other Western states, fears will happen if a federal bill to restructure California’s system for sharing water among urbanites, farmers and conservation projects passes Congress.

This week, the House of Representatives voted to approve the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act. The bill upends a 2006 settlement on water distribution that ended almost 20 years of lawsuits, as well as five years of planning to implement the settlement to replenish the San Joaquin river — a move California’s governor believes will make it a more reliable resource for both wildlife and thirsty Californians.

Farmers have never liked the irrigation restrictions that came with the deal. One influential Republican representative of California’s agricultural areas said the water pumping limitations had caused a “man-made drought” hampering the local economy in the San Joaquin Valley.

The particulars of the dispute are localized to California. But some Nevadans believe that if the federal government can successfully intervene to impose a water settlement on California, there’s no reason government won’t meddle in Nevada’s water disputes too.

“This flawed legislation would threaten our ability to determine how we manage Nevada’s most precious natural resource — our water supply,” said Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, who voted against the bill this week. “That is why the state of Nevada opposed this bill and why I voted to protect the rights of the Silver State when it comes to water.”

Nevada may not have California’s exact problems, but it is no stranger to disputes over water rights, especially as a state with a limited supply of water. Concerns about continued access to water are underpinning this week’s hearings and debates about a rate hike in Southern Nevada, as officials seek to raise funds to finance building another pipeline into Lake Mead and another to move water to Las Vegas from eastern Nevada.

Decisions about access to water in Nevada have been made by state law “for 100 years, and is actually considered a pretty wise set of statutes as far as water allocation goes,” said Nevada Division of Water Resources spokesman Bob Conrad. “I’m not sure what kind of precedent it would set for the federal government to come in and try to change that.”

That Nevada system is why, some representatives said, the California water bill going through Congress right now doesn’t actually pose a threat to Nevada at all.

“We have a water rights process that’s administered by the state engineer. And if you don’t like what the state engineer does, you can go to court. And so far, that process is working,” said Rep. Mark Amodei, a Republican who voted for the bill in the House. “In Nevada, they’re trying to purchase water and getting people to do things via arm’s length transactions … (in California), they’re trying to redivert water, but that’s not how you do it.”

But the comparison Nevada’s state agencies are making isn’t limited to the internal water distribution picture in the two states. There’s a spillover effect, the Nevada division of the Colorado River Compact argued in a formal letter to representatives this week, which means Nevada could be adversely affected by a California water distribution arrangement that starts to choke off the southern part of the state.

“Enacting (the bill) would set a dangerous precedent of preempting state water rights, which could reduce available water supplies from Northern California to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California,” the CRC of Nevada wrote. “This reduction could increase pressure on limited Colorado River water supplies crucial to Southern Nevada.”

Nevada is one of seven states along the course of the Colorado River that is party to a compact that determines each state’s share of the water rights — Nevada has the smallest share of any state. Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy has said she does not want to pursue discussions of reallocation, for fear that Nevada’s allocation might actually go down in such discussions. But, the CRC argues, if California’s demand for water increases, that could force the negotiations back to the table — potentially to Nevada’s detriment.

It’s an argument that may have convinced the state to oppose passage of the bill, but not Nevada’s Republican House members.

“This has nothing to do with the Colorado River Compact,” said Rep. Joe Heck, who also voted for the bill. “It has to do with the Central Valley Water project and the California water project. One’s federal and one’s state.”

The Central Valley Water project, administered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, works in conjunction with the state water authority to store and transport water resources in the area in question.

“If the federal government is responsible for operating one of the water authorities, the federal government should have something to say about how that authority operates,” Heck said. “I’m not concerned about it setting a precedent for the federal government coming in and pre-empting the Southern Nevada Water Authority.”

But while the House may have put its weight behind the bill in a 245-171 vote (mostly along party lines), momentum behind the effort is likely to stop there. California’s two Senators, both Democrats, are opposed to the plan, as is President Barack Obama, who complained through his advisers that the House bill “would codify 20-year-old, outdated science as the basis for managing California’s water resources, resulting in inequitable treatment of one group of water users over the other.”

A spokesperson for Sen. Harry Reid did not clarify Reid’s position on the California water bill, and its potential to set a precedent for Nevada Friday. But with that much consternation among Reid’s close allies, it’s unlikely the legislation stands much of a chance of encroaching on Nevada's water flow.

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