Humboldt River Basin Water Authority

Dry years along the Humboldt River have led to court action and proposed changes in water regulations.

Submitted

The Nevada Division of Water Resources is proposing Humboldt River regulations that would replace possible 11th District Court action the division fears would be too drastic for water users in the basin.

“We want to manage the water. We don’t want a judge to manage it,” Richard Felling, deputy administrator for the division, told Elko County Commissioners Wednesday.

The Pershing County Water Conservation District filed a writ petition in August 2015 in 11th District Court against the state engineer and modified it on Nov. 2, 2016.

The petition asks that the state engineer bring all over-appropriated basins back to their perennial yield to eliminate pumping that interferes with the river and to treat mining water rights as permanent rights rather than temporary, according to Felling.

Should the district court order State Engineer Jason King to meet petition requirements, curtailment of water pumping could be required in 19 of the 34 groundwater basins from Elko County through Pershing County, and any groundwater right that depletes the river would face curtailment.

Pershing County farmers and ranchers were heavily impacted by drought in the past few years, and “we heard their wrath,” Felling said.

He said a working group has been helping with a preliminary draft of regulations that would call for mitigating water losses to holders of senior water rights, and the division now needs to do a business impact statement before proceeding to the next step.

The terms of the petition “are pretty alarming to all of us,” Ryan Limberg, utilities manager for the City of Elko and a part of the working group, told county commissioners. He said the proposed regulations are the working group’s solution to “not have to go to such serious lengths.”

Part of that mitigation would include raising assessment fees that are now 50 cents per acre feet for surface and groundwater users, but the division doesn’t yet have a fee hike determined, Felling said.

The new assessment would include municipal rights so customers of municipal water also may be affected.

Limberg said the city doesn’t want to pay higher fees but from the standpoint of Lovelock farmers who don’t have enough water, the mitigation plan makes sense.

Funding for mitigation would come from holders of groundwater rights and companies responsible for mine pit lake evaporation through a special assessment, with the assessments based on depletions. All assessments would be placed in a fund to be used only for mitigation of conflicts to surface rights holders.

The draft states that owners of domestic wells are exempt from the regulations, but Felling said there is already concern that exempting domestic wells wouldn’t be fair.

The plan is to develop a mitigation program to be sure state water law is upheld for decreed holders since the earliest water rights have priority, according to a letter Felling wrote to the county asking to be on the agenda.

Already, the division has determined the proposed regulations will impact businesses, Felling said, and those are mostly agricultural businesses. He said, however, the petition’s requests of the court would have a major impact on the region’s economy.

The division is relying on studies the U.S. Geological Survey and Desert Research Institute are completing for the agency to help determine the extent of capture of river waters, Felling said. Capture means the depletion of surface water caused by groundwater diversions.

Paul Bottari, a real estate agent from Wells, told commissioners he had concerns about the prospect of offering groundwater to Lovelock as part of mitigation.

He said snowmelt is what replenishes the Humboldt River, not groundwater miles away from the river or its tributaries.

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Commissioner Jon Karr asked whether the proposed regulations would mean that holders of water rights lose a portion of rights if they are trying to conserve, and Felling answered that concern should be cleared up because users conserving water shouldn’t lose rights.

According to a preliminary draft of the proposed regulations, conjunctive management would cover any holder of a water right under the Humboldt River Decree dating back to 1923-1938 adjudication, certain groundwater rights holders and holders of storage rights in the Rye Patch Reservoir.

Commissioner Demar Dahl said the proposed regulations shouldn’t come as a surprise because “we have been kicking the can down the road for a lot of years” concerning water rights on the Humboldt River.

The regulations would also apply to companies responsible for mining sites with pit lakes that capture water through evaporation.

The original Pershing County Water Conservation District petition asked the court to require the state engineer to declare all over-appropriated groundwater basins within the Humboldt River Basin as critical management areas. That request was dropped in the amended petition, however.

Felling said the division wants comments on the impacts on small businesses and on the proposed regulations. They can be emails to him at rfelling@water.nv.gov.

The Nevada Division of Water Resources is meeting with all the county commissions in the basin, which includes Elko, Lander, Humboldt and Pershing counties, as well as Farm Bureaus, and was meeting Wednesday afternoon with the Northern Nevada Regional Development Association at Great Basin College.

The division will meet with the Nevada Farm Bureau at 6:30 p.m. July 20 at the Elko County Convention Center’s Conference Center.

City Utilities Manager Ryan Limberg said the city doesn’t want to pay higher fees but from the standpoint of Lovelock farmers who don’t have enough water, the mitigation plan makes sense.
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