Whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’. This saying may have come from Mark Twain, perhaps picked up while he was in Nevada. It is just as apt today in the driest state of the Union.
Nevada developed its first water law in 1866, providing rules to obtain and hold onto water rights. However, water laws did not stop the fights.
The most important principle in Nevada’s water laws is “first in time, first in right.” In times of shortage, water laws protect the most senior water rights.
The people of Nevada own all water above and below ground. People or companies can apply for a water right to use some of the state’s water, but they must show the water will be put to a beneficial use. Such uses can include irrigation, mining, stock watering, along with recreation, municipal, industrial and commercial. Such uses are subject to the “use it or lose it” rule. People cannot hold on to water rights without using the water. They cannot speculate on the value of future water rights. If they stop using the water, they lose the water right.
Water rights are considered property that can be bought, sold and traded. Once an entity obtains a water right, they must develop the water infrastructure and begin putting the water to use within a time limit. Although extensions to these time limits are possible, failing to use the water may result in the cancellation of the water right.
One beneficial water use does not require a water right. A domestic well for a single-family dwelling does not require a water right but is limited to two acre-feet of water per year. (an acre-foot of water is 325,851 gallons, or an acre of ground covered with one-foot depth of water.)
Most of the state’s surface water was already being used prior to the creation of the first state water laws. Those water rights remain fully protected. Most ground water only began being developed in the 1960s. Water rights have already claimed much of this ground water.
Nevada is divided into 256 hydrographic basins, or geographic drainage areas. They are considered to be separate water sources. The perennial yield of a basin is the maximum amount of water that can be removed each year without depleting the groundwater reservoir.
Nevada has 45 basins that are over-allocated. People have rights to more groundwater than is available. Some basins were allocated before their perennial yields were known and other basins had their perennial yields changed, placing them in the over-allocated category. Some basins also became over-allocated due to the number of domestic wells dug, wells that did not need a water right.
The first transfer of water between basins took place in 1873, to move water into the mining town of Virginia City. Many other transfers have since taken place, including one proposed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority. They have obtained rights to water in basins in Lincoln and Whited Pine Counties, and plan to move water south through a 300-mile pipeline, to Las Vegas. Often, they have purchased ranches to get those water rights. Groups are fighting the proposed pipeline, saying the water transfer will top the perennial yield of those basins.
The large mines in northeastern Nevada have drawn down the water table to keep mine pits dry. They move water around in the basin and use it for irrigation on ranches they have bought. Their abandoned mine pits will someday fill with water, increasing evaporation. Groups are concerned the water table will never return to pre-mine levels.
Concern also centers over the amount of water withdrawn from northeast Nevada’s Humboldt River Basin, where demand currently exceeds supply. Entities with water rights to surface water say upriver groundwater pumping causes less water flowing downstream.
The fightin’ over water will continue as Nevada’s water laws struggle to keep water users happy! More details on Nevada’s water rights are available at http://water.nv.gov/.