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April 23, 2017

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Drought, demand push Nevada toward stricter well water limit

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Lance Iversen / AP

In this Monday, Feb. 6, 2017, file photo, protesters to a water bill that would force ranchers to cap their wells and reduce their water rights demonstrate outside the Legislative Session on opening day in Carson City.

CARSON CITY — With groundwater drying up across arid Nevada, the state's top water official asked lawmakers on Tuesday to limit new wells drilled at rural homes in the state's most parched regions to a quarter of the water that existing wells can tap.

State Engineer Jason King said one in five domestic wells are in areas where his office has approved more water rights than there is water available. Many were at risk of total depletion before this year's record rainfall in Northern Nevada.

"I know we've got a great water year going this year, but a few years down the road those same wells that were dry will be dry again," said Sen. Pete Goicoechea, a Republican representing the central Nevada town of Eureka.

The 50,000 private-home wells currently approved across Nevada are crucial to daily life outside city water systems, and people want to drill more of them. But when the wells run low, King's office restricts their use — starting with the newest wells.

"Does it make sense to allow any more wells in the basin if they're going to be the first to get cut off?" King said. "The compromise was, well, let's let them, but let's not give them the full 2 acre-feet."

Senate Bill 272 would drop the cap to 0.5 acre-feet of water for all domestic wells built after July 1, 2017, in areas where water is already overused.

The restrictions are geared toward sustaining the critical resource for Nevadans who rely on well water today, but also to ensure it's available in perpetuity.

Residents argue they should not be punished for the government's miscalculation.

Most who spoke against the bill were from Amargosa Valley and Pahrump, towns west of Las Vegas and east of Death Valley in a desert on Nevada's border with California. About 22 percent of all domestic wells in Nevada are in that area, King said.

"Water is life. Without water from my well I cannot live in Amargosa Valley," John Bosta said via teleconference from Las Vegas.

Members of the Senate Natural Resources Committee also heard a bill that would prevent any well restrictions from inhibiting household water.

As it stands, King said, well water cutbacks could mean a "scorched-Earth scenario where they're just cut off completely." That would seriously risk public safety, he said.

Senate Bill 271 would protect water for indoor domestic use, such as toilet water, as well as watering pets or livestock. Omar Saucedo, a lobbyist for the Las Vegas Valley Water District, said "livestock" should be clarified. King agreed because the wells can be used for domestic animals only, not ranching.

Goicoechea said he would like to continue water for fruit trees during cutbacks, too.

"I would really hate to see, in some of these cases, where people have spent 40 years growing that little shade tree and with the curtailment you would lose that," Goicoechea said.

Other bills on the subject this year include Senate Bill 74 to allow people to capture and store rainwater. Senate Bill 47 would, among clerical changes, allow the state engineer to access and investigate places where well water is used and require domestic wells to be plugged if the owner also gets water from a municipal or other water system.

The first protest at the Legislature this session was against SB47.

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