ELKO — The amount of water allowed to be withdrawn from the Humboldt River Basin exceeds the yield, and the Nevada Division of Water Resources is in the process of modeling the region’s hydrogeology so the state can better govern the resource.
Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and Desert Research Institute are completing the study, and representatives from the organizations updated shareholders on their progress during workshops Jan. 9 in Lovelock and Winnemucca, and Jan. 10 in Elko.
“These guys — the USGS and DRI — are doing a good job and are very thorough,” said Jon Benedict, a Nevada Division of Water Resources geologist, after the Elko workshop. “We are in good hands as far as the technical expertise that we brought to bear.”
After the drought of 2012-2016, the issue of over-allocated water resources came to a head as downstream senior surface water right holders said junior groundwater pumping upstream took away from their allocations. The Pershing County Water Conservation District filed a writ petition in 2015, amended 2016, requesting that the state curtail water in over-appropriated basins.
The perennial yield of the Humboldt River Basin is about 429,000 acre-feet while appropriations total about 716,000 acre-feet, research shows.
In response to the writ petition, the state initiated the four-year study costing $2.8 million to better understand the water resource then use the data to create a management system by 2020. Nevada Division of Water Resources Deputy Administrator Rick Felling visited Elko in July 2017 to gather input on how the possible regulations could affect small-business owners and describe the history of the state’s water rights, according to Elko Daily Free Press archives.
During the January Elko workshop at the Nannini Administrative Building — attended by more than 25 people, including representatives from Elko area governments, ranchers, mining companies and conservation groups — researchers covered the general principles of groundwater and evapotranspiration from plants, and showed progress on models for the upper, middle and lower basins.
The results should come together to create an understanding of stream depletion and how governance would affect the river system.
Jake Tibbitts, natural resources manager for Eureka County, asked the presenters if the estimated acre-feet of water pumped yearly counted gross or consumptive use total. He pointed out that the studies credited mines with reinjecting water back into the resource while irrigators didn’t seem to be judged the same.
“Why not adjust irrigation for consumptive use?” he asked, explaining that the difference risked labeling irrigation as a high water user.
One of the panelists responded by saying that mines and geothermal operations must reinject water according to their permits, and the data is well-documented. Benedict added that a management plan would look at consumptive use for irrigators, as well.
“The concept would be that it is equitable and fair,” Benedict said.
Other concerns voiced during a question-and-answer session included whether high-water-use plants would be removed, the effects of drilling new wells and which pivot systems were most efficient at irrigation.
Tibbitts said he looked forward to seeing more detail in the reports so he can better connect how the science will inform the regulations because “that all will have bearing on someone’s livelihood in the future.”
The research team expects to have a draft report by the first quarter of 2019, followed by a review process. The final report could be finished as early as the end of that year or 2020.