News reports reveal that Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended reducing Gold Butte National Monument boundaries to exclude Mesquite historic water rights. In the meantime, Virgin Valley Water District wrestles with the reality of gaining access to its water in Nickel Spring inside the monument borders.
VVWD counts on six mountain springs to provide 2,200 acre feet of water per year in about 20 years when the population of the valley outpaces the groundwater supply from VVWD’s deep wells. Five of the springs, located on the north slope of the Virgin Mountains, were placed within the national monument boundaries by presidential proclamation last year.
VVWD had long consulted with Senator Harry Reid’s office and provided specific verbiage it needed to protect its rights in a land use proclamation. The final document that was drawn up did not contain clear direction on access rights to VVWD water.
During VVWD Board of Directors’ Dec. 5 meeting, General Manager Kevin Brown briefly reviewed the gist of Zinke’s report that was released on the heels of the President’s action reducing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments. Zinke’s Gold Butte recommendation was based on VVWD’s public comment that described how the murky language of monument proclamation jeopardized access to its historic water rights.
Zinke’s recommendation would move the boundary south and pull VVWD’s spring sources out of the 297,000-acre monument. That recommendation may, or may not, be acted upon by President Trump. In the meantime, VVWD must deal with the monument as it is currently formed.
Brown walked the board of directors through the pending application in VVWD’s pursuit to obtain right of way to develop access to its water rights at Nickel Creek. Those historic water rights were authorized by the State of Nevada.
In 2012 VVWD filed application N-91515 with BLM to “obtain right of way facilities needed to develop and use its Nickel Creek water rights, requesting use of existing designated open roads on BLM managed land, and installation of Nickel Creek water collection well system and delivery facilities including pipeline and road sections.”
VVWD paid the BLM a $20,000 application processing fee, but as of late 2017 no action has been taken by the BLM concerning the 2012 application.
In the same right of way application, VVWD also asked for seasonal access to Virgin Peak where the district maintains a precipitation gauge that helps evaluate recharge rate of the local aquifer from which VVWD draws groundwater for its customers. Calculating the rate at which precipitation percolates to the aquifer is a critical part of projecting valley water resources.
Brown and district hydrologist Aaron Bunker were handed a conundrum during an Oct. 4 conference call with the BLM management team in Las Vegas.
Brown recounted that James Lee Kirk, interim Gold Butte Monument Manager, opened the conference call by stating that the Presidential Proclamation that created the monument excluded any new rights-of-way (ROW) from being authorized unless the ROW benefited the objects of the monument. Only existing authorizations would be able to be modified, amended, or improved. Kirk stated the proclamation “specifically protects granted water rights, but does not include language that would allow development to reach the water rights.”
Vanessa Hice, BLM assistant field manager, Division of Lands, informed Brown and Bunker that VVWD’s existing ROWs needed to be brought into compliance with current Federal Land Management Policy Act (FLPMA) authorizations. That would require amendment of the applications, which would trigger a yearly rental fee on the entire duration of the amended ROW, and FLPMA ROW grants expire in a set period. The expiration date was not specified during the call. Any deviation or relief from this process or fees would require congressional action.
VVWD rights to the water from Nickel Spring were granted in perpetuity under previous right of way, but the right to gather that water is not confirmed and is not a permanent right because the 2012 ROW application was not approved prior to formation of the monument.
BLM explained that VVWD is holding a now-invalid application that deals with two topics. BLM advised that VVWD withdraw its 2012 application and reapply under two new forms that comply with FLMPA guidelines for the monument.
Brown sought board direction on how he and Bunker should move forward in a follow up meeting scheduled for Dec. 14. The board voted unanimously that Brown should pursue preservation of application N-91515, since Kirk had stated that only existing authorizations would be modified, amended, or improved, and new ones would not be accepted unless they “benefited the objects of the monument,” which could be interpreted to exclude benefit to VVWD and its water users.
Upon evaluating the content of the conference call, board members spoke directly to two men in the audience who previously warned of monument restriction of water rights. Wade Poulsen, Lincoln County Water District Manager, and Mesquite City Councilman Dave Ballweg have voiced skepticism of the promises made to Mesquite in maintaining its access to its water rights within the monument. Lincoln County and Moapa Valley water districts face access issues with no solution to date.
Board member Barbara Ellestad stated that public needs to know the ROW process to understand VVWD’s opposition to the monument boundary. Ellestad maintains that Friends of Gold Butte mislead the public concerning monument guarantees, as she read from a letter written to Secretary Zinke in July, 2017. Ellestad pointed out that the letter, which is posted on the organization’s website, states the monument proclamation presents no impediments to VVWD accessing its water resources. Quoting from the letter:
“Significantly, the proclamation language protects water rights: The establishment of the monument is subject to valid existing rights, including valid existing water rights.” The proclamation also protects rights of way and the ability for the water district to make modifications and upgrades to their water infrastructure.”
Considering the options BLM presented to VVWD, Ellestad concluded that Friends of Gold Butte continues to misinform and mislead the public in describing proclamation verbiage as protecting VVWD’s rights of way and future upgrades.
The board voted 5-0 to allow Brown to address Mesquite City Council at the City’s Dec 12 meeting. Vice-President Ben Davis was appointed to speak on behalf of the VVWD board to reiterate to the City the reason for VVWD’s need to guarantee use of its water rights.
Business Impact report accepted in assessing rate increase
In another topic of importance, the board acted on a business impact statement concerning potential VVWD rate increases and system development charges. District staff had drawn up a document outlining the board proposal to raise water user rates by 1.0 percent in both FY2018 and FY2019, followed by rate increases of .3 percent in both FY2020 and FY2021.
The statement that was distributed for comment to businesses and management companies also outlined a proposed development impact fee increase. Two responses were returned. Neither reply identified substantial adverse impact on Mesquite business growth.
The board voted unanimously 5-0 to accept staff’s document after determining that the rate increase was not a significant impediment to business growth. A schedule of the proposed rate changes is available on the district website, www.vvh2o.com.
The final action of the meeting was Brown’s annual job review by the board. That review was a unanimous endorsement of his strong performance and leadership of the district in the past year. Discussion of pay adjustment for Brown was postponed to coincide with FY2019 budget hearings in the spring.