Four Mesquite city councilmen cited the need to assure future access to water resources as the main reason for approving an updated resolution on the Gold Butte National Monument at their Tuesday, June 27 meeting. Very little else in the two-page resolution was debated during the hour-long discussion.
Former President Barack Obama declared the Gold Butte area south of Mesquite and Bunkerville as a national monument in December 2016. Current President Donald Trump ordered a review of the declaration and others made under the 1906 Antiquities Act to determine if they should be resized, reworked or recalled altogether. The Department of Interior, as part of the review, has called for public comment input through July 10.
Councilman David Ballweg sponsored the resolution and said “it is a balance of what is good for the city and what is not good for the city.” He said his intent was to “open a dialogue to get everyone’s input. The Friends of Gold Butte [an advocacy group for the monument] did not hold an open meeting to get citizenship input in their overall view. This is my attempt to be balanced and bring everyone into it.”
He also said the resolution was intended to continue protecting the Gold Butte area but with reasonable use allowed. He said the top concern everyone should have is unfettered access by the Virgin Valley Water District to water resources in the Virgin Mountains. The District holds the legal rights to approximately 2,200 acre feet of water resources but the springs are inside the boundaries of the monument designation.
“Yes there is language in the designation about the water but that is absolutely no guarantee that the water will be available to us,” Ballweg said, citing difficulties the Moapa Valley Water District has already had in accessing their water rights in Gold Butte and Lincoln County Water District accessing their rights in the Basin and Range National Monument.
Mayor Al Litman said before the agenda item opened that Ballweg had not gotten citizen input into the resolution’s content. Ballweg called that “grossly inaccurate” adding that he had held meetings with Friends of Gold Butte representatives and had spent a day touring the region with various stakeholders.
Litman also added that the resolution is “not a law, just an opinion.” He said both the Gold Butte and Basin and Range monuments were too large in geographic scope and that the economic development studies were flawed.
Councilman George Rapson, after reading the resolution, said it was all about keeping access to the water. He said that by moving the boundaries to exclude the water resources would reduce the monument’s size by “24 square miles out of 648 square miles. Lincoln County has retained their water rights but can’t access them. You can’t have one without the other.”
Rapson said it came down to two issues for him – one was money to maintain the area and keeping access to the water.
During the public comment period, more people spoke against the resolution than for it with most advocates citing the need to protect the region’s natural resources.
Jaina Moan, Executive Director of Friends of Gold Butte, said “we oppose any effort to reduce the size of Gold Butte National Monument. In fact, we think the monument should have been larger. The expanse of Gold Butte is necessary for two reasons. One, to tell the continuous story of our human relationship with the land. Two, to preserve a unique diversity system of wildlife populations.”
Moan said that protecting Gold Butte does not mean “closing it off. Rather the monument ensures that all people can continue to enjoy it for generations to come. Our love for this land is our common ground.”
Moan addressed the concerns about access to the Virgin Valley Water District water rights saying “Legally, the District should have access to the springs water rights of way. We feel that the proclamation provides this. Moreover, the springs and water rights are better protected because they are specifically protected in the proclamation language.”
Addressing concerns about the lack of monetary resources devoted to the area, Moan also said that the BLM has hired three people for the area, installed signs, created brochures about the monument and submitted applications for two grants worth two million dollars.
Rapson said he had no expectations that the resolution would have an affect on whether the monument is rescinded or affirmed. “My primary goal is to protect our water rights one hundred percent and that’s it.”
Councilmen Brian Wursten and Rich Green also expressed support of the resolution in terms of protecting access to the water rights without much comment on the rest of the document.
Councilman Geno Withelder said he had dealt with Gold Butte issues several times during his 10 years on the council. “There doesn’t seem to be any level playing ground” between supporters and detractors of the monument, he said just before voting no on the resolution.
Ballweg, Rapson, Green, and Wursten voted yes in support of the resolution which will be sent to the Department of Interior as part of its mandated review of the designation.