Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015 | 2 a.m.
In the coming weeks, the Southern Nevada Water Authority will prepare its livestock for the harsh winter in the Great Basin.
Sheep and cows will shuffle to different ranges or begin their trek to slaughterhouses.
Most water utilities aren’t in the ranching business. Then again, most water utilities aren’t the SNWA — a regional government body that manages Southern Nevada’s water supply — which grazes up to 11,000 sheep and cattle on 960,000 acres from Spring Valley to south of Pioche.
The SNWA’s expansion into agriculture follows its $79 million acquisition of seven ranches in one of Nevada’s most remote regions nearly a decade ago for their water and grazing rights. The authority’s objective was not to run a ranch. It wanted underground water to meet demand in Southern Nevada. Those $15 billion pipeline plans went on pause after a Nevada district court ordered a halt to the 27-trillion gallon, 300-mile project in 2013 — a legal effort paid for by ranchers and environmental activists.
So to keep the rights, the SNWA has gone into the ranching business to “ensure the management of those assets going forward,” said Bronson Mack, an SNWA spokesman. “If we waited until we actually need the water we would be out of luck.”
According to the SNWA, although it has no plans to use the water soon, it is holding the land to establish sources of water for Southern Nevada residents other than the Colorado River. If it wanted to, the water authority could raise a single cow or sheep on its holdings to maintain its grazing and water rights. It has gone much further. Instead, the SNWA has become a steward of what former SNWA general manager Pat Mulroy called “the ranching lifestyle.”
That push into the livestock business has bred a fair share of critics — most notably from neighboring private ranchers, including the chairman of the Nevada Rangeland Resources Commission.
“(The SNWA) suffers from megalomania,” said Hank Vogler, who sits on the state body that supports the industry. “All I can see in the near future are the ratepayers in Southern Nevada paying more and more” because of the ranching operation.
In a business where profit margins are slim, ranchers said the SNWA had an unfair advantage backed by the water bills of SNWA ratepayers. It doesn’t pay vehicle registration or fuel tax. On the 23,000 acres of property it owns outright, it doesn’t pay property tax, although it does offer a fee called a payment in lieu of taxes that's commensurate to the property taxes. The SNWA also pays an addition $10,000 to White Pine county to offset other tax and fee exemptions.
The SNWA sends its animals to the same auctions that the private ranchers do, raising their concerns about being undercut on price. “Ranchers eking out a living can’t compete against the water authority,” said Kena Gloeckner, a rancher whose family has been in the region for 150 years.
The cost of the ranching operations has come into question. A lawsuit filed this year in a state district court alleged that the SNWA covered up fiscal losses on its ranching operations in 2008 and 2009. The plaintiff, former SNWA accountant Randall Buie, said he was forced into retirement after blowing the whistle internally. That case is ongoing.
For the story, the SNWA provided the Sun with a financial statement for its ranch operations. The SNWA says that its total net income was $674,942 on a gross operating income of $1.5 million. It didn’t disclose other costs, including those associated with the pipeline project itself.
Aside from costs, the SNWA has drawn charges of not being a good neighbor.
The SNWA shares borders with ranchers throughout eastern Nevada, some of whom said that the water authority let its livestock run in places where they shouldn’t have been. Its sheep have been found in the borders of Great Basin National Park. Others have been found within private property. Gloeckner said SNWA sheep spent two months on a grazing allotment she leases from the BLM. The authority was only supposed to use it for two weeks. “All ranchers have an unwritten code of ethics,” she said. “One of those beliefs is that if it’s not yours, don’t touch it. But we’ve had problem after problem.”
In 1963, 11 ranchers penned a deal that delineated where sheep and cattle could run on a patch of BLM land during the winter. One of the parties in the agreement sold its stake to the SNWA, and now the remaining signatories say the water authority doesn’t follow the compact. The BLM ended up brokering a temporary compromise, but the authority said it was not bound by the original agreement.
It’s a modern-era range war, said Paul Podborny, a BLM field manager based in Ely. “Just like in any kind of war, settling it doesn't happen overnight. We’ve been working with SNWA and all the operators to come up with a long-term solution.”
Known as the Great Basin Ranch, the SNWA’s property stretches 132 miles north to south and runs in one of the wetter regions of the Nevada cold desert: Meadow Creek, Cold Creek, Shingle Creek and Cold Spring. Those names allude to the valuable resource the agency could ship to residents of Southern Nevada.
The underground water flows unseen while springs bubble and streams trickle toward the floor of the Great Basin. Mountain ranges envelop a land where sage grouse, elk, pronghorn, bobcats and raptors are untouched by development in Las Vegas.
Although the SNWA has no plans to tap the water, it will remain in its portfolio for the long term. That means that some kind of deal may have to be struck between the authority and the ranchers.
Officials from the SNWA don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms, said Bob Coffin, a Las Vegas city councilman and SNWA board member. “We can’t just helicopter up and dump money in and make them love us. We just have to treat them fairly.”