Old mining equipment at Gold Butte town site, Gold Butte region – October 2016

It’s been a year and a half since President Barack Obama designated 706,000 acres of land north of Mesquite as the Basin and Range National Monument in Lincoln and Nye Counties. The lessons learned from how that came about has clearly been a stepping stone in the right direction for the Virgin Valley and the Virgin Valley Water District and their retention of the water rights and developing plans they have within the monument.

Lincoln County Water District Manager Wade Poulsen, who has been affected by that designation, has attended many meetings at the VVWD and cautioned them in 2015 and 2016 when it appeared as though Gold Butte was going to be the next national monument.

It may have been those warnings that has saved the VVWD from losing its water rights in six springs locations within the Gold Butte Monument area. In the Gold Butte designation, the VVWD keeps all existing rights and rights-of-way, so it can develop those rights when needed as the population of the Virgin Valley grows.

Through those rights-of-way are allowances for setting new pipeline when needed. That’s something that the LCWD doesn’t have. “What they (VVWD) do have,” Poulsen said, “is certificated water rights. As long as they have the means to move those rights to get the water where they need it, they might be fine.”

The water rights aren’t hindered for LCWD, as stated in the Basin and Range declaration, but there’s no way for the LCWD to develop those rights because the land itself is tied up in the monument. VVWD has several structures set from many years ago, according to VVWD General Manager Kevin Brown, which made it slightly easier to get some sort of verbiage in the proclamation to ensure their resources would be accessible.

“The biggest problem we ran into,” said Poulsen, “and the reason why we were against that area becoming a designated monument is a two-pronged problem. One, although we have a water application in the area, we cannot develop it. There is no land to develop those water rights on. The BLM has taken all of the land so that it cannot be entered into a Desert Land Entry, and/or disposed of by the county as a viable property. Allowing that would have enabled the county to sell that property into private hands and develop the land for economic growth. We had targeted those areas out there to possibly grow the private land property in Lincoln County as part of the disposal for the Lincoln County Land Act.”

The LCLA was passed by Congress and signed into law in October 2000, which provided for the disposal of land to create sections of property that would generate revenue to the county and state by way of taxes through the sale of land and future property taxes. By taking away nearly 1.4 million acres through the monument declaration and the four wilderness areas that surround it, Lincoln County is now left with very little land to use in any kind of economic development move. Another area that they have looked at developing and is closest to Mesquite is just shy of 14,000 acres, which is very small compared to the amount of property that has been lost through the monument designation.

Poulsen went on to explain that the second problem is that they cannot get to their water rights, because they are surrounded by wilderness areas. “They say in the declaration that we can have rights-of-way, but to have a right-of-way, you have to have a point of use. By this declaration, they took away the point of use and that is something we don’t have.”

There are three access points to the area, but without being able to build the facilities to develop the water, the roads do the LCWD no good.

Another difference in the two designations, and one that Poulsen takes quite seriously, is that there were no public meetings or forums held to obtain the views and opinions of people and companies that had an interest in the area or would be directly affected by the designation.

“It was purely a political agenda,” he said. “There were several meetings for the Gold Butte area in the surrounding communities.”

However, none have been held for several years in the Mesquite area and opened to the public.

All is not lost for the LCWD as Poulsen believes some things can be done to amend the proclamation or redirect it to be downsized so the LCWD may be able to get the language they need to develop the LCWD’s water rights. With President-elect Donald Trump, Poulsen is optimistic something will happen to make things better for Lincoln County as a whole. To do that, the LCWD will be sending letters to several political representatives and hope that things will turn around as needed.

The final plan for Basin and Range National Monument is about halfway through its allotted three-year Resource Management Plan development period. Poulsen has attended previous meetings of the stakeholders, and more frequent meetings should begin again in the next month.

Until either one of the RMPs is finalized and published, the fates of the areas remain unknown.