Water fight

Developers seek to have all authority over water in Reno and Sparks placed in a single agency

The facilities of four water agencies that serve Reno and Sparks, such as the Chalk Bluff water treatment plant, would be combined in a single agency under a measure that has been approved by the Nevada Senate.

The facilities of four water agencies that serve Reno and Sparks, such as the Chalk Bluff water treatment plant, would be combined in a single agency under a measure that has been approved by the Nevada Senate.

Photo By David Robert

A proposed water agency combining four existing agencies in the Reno-Sparks area has been approved by the Nevada Senate but faces a lot of skepticism in the Assembly.

The new agency, which would be vaguely analogous to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, would control the four major water suppliers serving the Reno/Sparks area—the Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA), the Washoe County Department of Water Resources, the Sun Valley General Improvement District (GID) and the South Truckee Meadows GID.

The issue has become a sensitive one politically, and assemblymembers from Washoe County will be paying close attention to what happens in committee hearings and deliberations:

• Assemblymember Ty Cobb: “I’m looking forward to hearing the bill before making a decision. I have been receiving a number of concerns from constituents about them losing their water rights through that proposed process. I’m very interested in [an alternative] idea from TMWA about setting up a working group among all of the water authorities in Washoe without a separate governing organization.”

• Assemblymember Heidi Gansert: “The goal of creating a water authority to better manage water in Washoe County is appropriate. But, I believe the bill has several problems right now. First, we need to make sure well-owners’ rights are preserved. Second, the language appears very open ended regarding fees. I would like that language to also be revised.”

• Assemblymember James Settelmeyer: “I have not as of yet formed an opinion. I do worry about infringing someone’s property rights.”

• Assemblymember Debbie Smith: [I] am withholding judgment until the bill is heard and fully vetted, with proposed amendments.”

• Assemblymember Sheila Leslie: “I have heard from many of my constituents … about water rates skyrocketing out of control in order to finance cheaper water to fuel population growth. I want to ensure that we have comprehensive water planning in our community that adequately takes into account financial and environmental costs, expecially when interbasin transfers are being considered. We need to … ensure that these protections are in place before creating another bureaucracy that may not reflect the will of the people who already live there.”

• Assemblymember David Bobzien: “A consolidated agency could increase conservation and reduce costs for ratepayers through efficiencies, but I’m concerned that this legislation could lead to some unintended consequences. … I’m concerned the bill allows growth to drive our water policy, instead of available water driving our growth policy.”

Suspicions are running high because there has been little discontent with the main water agency in Reno-Sparks (TMWA) to prompt this proposed change and because much of the firepower behind the proposed new agency seems to be developers and those associated with them. The Reno Sparks Chamber of Commerce has released a statement endorsing the proposed agency and saying that it “should include a strong emphasis on acquisition, management (including mega infrastructure projects relative to importation), planning and conservation of water resources and would be phased in to be a functional operation with specific and defined roles and direction.”

The chamber’s call for acquisition powers sets off alarm bells. There are widespread suspicions that one purpose of the legislation is to put more political muscle behind water importation to the Truckee Meadows, an idea that faces deep-seated hostility among residents but is equally deeply desired by developers. The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada’s Bob Fulkerson: “TMWA doesn’t go out and find new water sources. TMWA can’t amortize the costs of doing so among existing ratepayers. TMWA can’t do eminent domain.”

The gap between the two sides can be seen in statements by the Sierra Club, which calls the measure “totally unnecessary” and testimony from a Chamber lobbyist calling the measure “imperative.”

Issues of water are not the only things affecting this battle. The principal advocate of the bill in the Senate was not a Washoe County legislator. It was Carson City’s Mark Amodei. He said that role was mainly a function of his having chaired the study committee that came up with the bill.

Because lawmakers meet for only a short time every other year, individual legislatures have difficulty getting their arms around complex issues. So they have a system of study committees that meet during the year-and-a-half interim periods between legislatures. The water measure came from one of those committees, chaired by Amodei.

“I do have experience in water,” Amodei said. “I think that when they made the committee assignments, they … knew that person would be a lightning rod because [combining] Washoe County, TMWA, the GIDs is a very controversial thing. That’s not news to anybody.”

Critics of the legislation say that TMWA is an agency that works well and has a good reputation and that there is no outcry for change. Progressive Leadership Alliance lobbyist Jan Gilbert said, “Washoe County has a very good system. The Truckee Meadows Water Authority, you know, they have a regional plan, they’re trying to provide water but not overcommit water. This bill will actually wipe out their [three-year] plan … and make water cheap for developers.”

Amodei said the study committee’s work was “all phenomenally transparent, all very direct, no backroom, no aims or whatever, it was all straight-on stuff: What are we going to do? What are the facts? What are the issues? What do you think?”

Amodei’s private business interests have come in for scrutiny. In committee testimony, opponent Martha Gould closed her statement by saying, “My last concern is that Senator Amodei, who is a water utilities lawyer in private practice with ties—I will say alleged ties, as I have not been able to verify this information—to those who want to do the Cordevista project in Storey County, and Vidler, the Fish Springs importation project [which is] Honey Lake, which I thought had been done away with back in the 1980s. If this is so, then why did he not disclose these potential conflicts of interest?”

Amodei is an attorney for Virginia Highlands LLC, the company that is planning an 8,600-home project that also comes with commercial and office development on 11,000 acres four miles northeast of Virginia City Highlands. Bob Fulkerson has complained that “Senator Amodei did not make this conflict of interest known during the hearings and passage of the bill in the Senate.” However, the development would not operate in the service area of the proposed Reno-Sparks agency, though Fulkerson calls it the “camel’s nose under the tent.”

Vidler is another matter. The Vidler Water Co. of La Jolla, Calif., handles the latest incarnation of the Honey Lake water importation project, now being called the Fish Springs project. Amodei said his law firm is not handling the Honey Lake matter.

“If you’re asking specifically about Vidler, we do not represent Vidler in any way shape or form in connection with their operations of the—what’s the name of the project? Fish Springs Ranch?” Amodei said. “As a matter of fact, I’m in the transactions section, but I would submit to you that they’re not going to benefit much because of the way the Washoe County Commission has received much of the [study] committee’s work.” He said it would probably hurt Vidler before the Washoe commissioners if it used his law firm on Honey Lake.

Amodei supervises the Reno-Carson office of Kummer Kaempfer Bonner Renshaw & Ferrario, whose Web site says he concentrates on “real estate development, government relations, business transactions and litigation.”

Amodei’s group from the Senate has asked to sit down with Washoe legislators in the Assembly to give them a sales pitch. Some members of the Washoe delegation in the Assembly said they would not give that privilege to advocates unless critics are given a similar session. Amodei’s group will probably go first, meeting with the assemblymembers on May 3.