Grab is dead in the water

A recent crucial regulatory decision favored the good guys in Nevada’s interminable water wars. State Engineer Jason King ruled against the plan by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) to import groundwater through a 300-mile pipeline in Eastern Nevada to feed the rapacious thirst of Las Vegas. King’s decision to deny all water rights applications for the water grab was hailed as a tremendous victory for the odd folks coalition of activists, a coalition featuring progressive conservationists, conservative ranchers and farmers, tribal leaders and their members, rural county commissioners and people of all political stripes who recreate in the pristine desert and range of Eastern Nevada, who have worked since 1989 to thwart the water thieves.

It’s worth celebrating every victory, but it’s far too soon to be certain this one will stick. History confirms that SNWA doesn’t give up easily, if ever, and they are more than willing to use unscrupulous means—such as trying to sneak a change to existing water law that favors their position into a bill at the last minute of a legislature, hoping their opponents overlook it until it’s too late. They are likely to appeal King’s decision with legions of highly-paid lawyers, but don’t be surprised if they start hiring every powerful lobbyist they can find for the 2019 Nevada Legislature to change Nevada’s water law so the pipeline can proceed.

Skirmishes between SNWA and water activists are legendary, on the battlefields of the courts and the legislature alike. After one particularly contentious year, Susan Lynn, then spokesperson for the Great Basin Water Network, encapsulated SNWA’s long-term strategy perfectly when she said, “They’re waiting for us to move and die off.”

In 2019, SNWA will be prepared to launch another protracted fight.

As a legislator, I experienced the wrath of the SNWA lobbying corps numerous times, even for environmentally-friendly bills such as allowing gray water usage, a measure demanded by citizens who wanted to conserve valuable water resources and reduce energy costs. SNWA effectively squashed arguments in favor of the bill and after a long hearing, successfully torpedoed it.

One session, I introduced a bill with my colleague Assm. Peggy Pierce to require the state engineer to adopt goals for water conservation in all Nevada counties, provide a process and funding to clarify the status of existing water rights and require public hearings on any inter-basin water transfers. We also wanted to conduct a water resource inventory and create an interim committee to continue to explore water allocation and management in Nevada.

The bill didn’t get very far, but that didn’t stop SNWA from ridiculing our efforts and publicly punishing us for daring to oppose them. They put labor leaders at the forefront of the opposition, especially those whose obsession with construction jobs blinded them to the values held by many of their rank-and-file members who love to fish, hunt and recreate on Nevada’s backlands. One bombastic labor leader grew incredibly angry when we wouldn’t immediately drop the bill on his request. That afternoon he chased me down a hallway in the legislative building yelling, “I’ll make sure you never get elected to anything again!” before cooler heads intervened and pulled him away to calm down.

In 2019, legislators must be vigilant and very wary of changing Nevada’s water statutes, which have balanced the interests of different regions of the state for more than 100 years. A decision the legislature makes in a fleeting moment could destroy our most pristine land and saddle Clark County taxpayers with a multi-billion-dollar debt for water importation.

Although politicians love to quote Mark Twain as saying, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over,” researchers have not been able to authenticate the statement. That hasn’t stopped the politicians of course. Sort of like SNWA.