Water users in Diamond Valley kicked off efforts to develop a Groundwater Management Plan for the groundwater basin at two workshops sponsored by the Eureka County Conservation District on April 23 and June 11, 2015. The workshops, held at the Eureka Board of County Commission Chambers and Eureka Opera House, respectively, were facilitated by Steve Lewis of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Services. Steve is well-known for his ability to help groups reach consensus with challenging issues. He is intimately familiar with water issues in Eureka County, having previously served as the Extension Service’s Agent in Charge in Eureka County from 1984 to 1990.
The June 11 session included an appearance by Professor Mike Young of the University of Adelaide, Australia where he holds a Research Chair in Water and Environmental Policy. He was a founding Executive Director of its Environmental Institute, is a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, and is a Distinguished Fellow of the Australian Agricultural and Resources Economics Study. As the Whitiam and Malcolm Fraser Chair in Australian Studies at Harvard University, Professor Young was instrumental in fashioning a “blueprint for a western water initiative.” He was influential in the development and implementation of changes in water policy to combat the worst drought in Australia’s history between the years 2003 to 2012. As luck would have it, Professor Young was in Nevada to meet with representatives of Governor Sandoval to discuss a range of water issues. He had heard about Diamond Valley’s water problems and was interested in gaining a better appreciation of them, so Jake Tibbitts, Eureka County’s Natural Resource Manager, and Eureka County Commission Chairman J.J. Goicoechea invited him to the workshop. Upon completion presentation highlighting the Australian experience, the attendees of the June 11 session drew him into the conversation to help categorize the basic elements of a plan to manage water resources in Diamond Valley.
The need for a Groundwater Management Plan is a result of massive over-appropriation of Diamond Valley’s groundwater resources under the oversight of the office of the Nevada State Engineer. More than 50 years ago predecessors to the current State Engineer approved applications for permits to appropriate groundwater totaling more than 180,000 acre-feet per year (an acre-foot is equal to approximately 326,000 gallons of water) in a basin that is estimated to safely yield only about 30,000 acre-feet per year (also referred to as the Perennial Yield). There are currently more than 130,000 acre-feet of groundwater rights on the books in Diamond Valley, more than four times the Perennial Yield. For decades, groundwater consumption in the Valley has been more than double the amount the resource can sustain indefinitely and groundwater has essentially been mined.
Since groundwater exploitation in the basin began in the 1960s and accelerated into the 1970s, water levels in the basin’s aquifer have declined by more than 100 feet in the center of southern Diamond Valley where agricultural pumping is concentrated. This drawdown has resulted in wide-spread declines that now extend well beyond the area of concentrated agricultural pumping and have affected or eliminated the flow of springs in northern Diamond Valley. Well owners and water rights holders are engaged in a “race to the bottom of the aquifer” as pumps are lowered and wells deepened to respond to the declining water levels.
The current State Engineer Jason King inherited the problem from his predecessors. He has made two formal presentations to the water users in Diamond Valley – the most recent in February 2014 – where he strongly urged stakeholders to take the initiative to come up with community-based solutions to the overdraft problem. He has also held numerous meetings with County officials and staff, individuals and groups all of whom welcome the opportunity to work toward an equitable resolution. If the community cannot help the State Engineer resolve the matter, the State Engineer has no option but to curtail pumping solely on the basis of priority, which could result in a 60 percent reduction in current irrigation use. In Diamond Valley, any groundwater right with a priority junior to May 18, 1960 is in jeopardy of being curtailed. The State Engineer also has the authority to regulate pumping from domestic wells. His records show only two domestic wells in Diamond Valley have a priority date that is senior to May 18, 1960.
This community-based approach to addressing water resource management was made possible through legislation sponsored by State Senator Pete Goicoechea when he was a member of the State Assembly. His legislation was conceived specifically to address areas like Diamond Valley where groundwater is being mined and water levels are steadily declining. Such areas would be designated Critical Management Areas (CMAs) either through petition from water right holders or unilaterally by the State Engineer. The process allows flexibility on behalf of the State Engineer over a 10-year period to implement a Groundwater Management Plan developed by the water users. However, if a plan cannot be successfully implemented within the statutory period, the State Engineer would be forced to curtail pumping on the basis of priority. Presently, only Diamond Valley and the Pahrump area are actively moving toward declaration as CMAs, but there are two dozen additional basins waiting in the wings to be designated as such. The important points to remember are: the Groundwater Management Plan is developed by the water users; once the State Engineer approves the Plan, it guides how water is used in the basin.
The two workshops sponsored by the Conservation District are the latest in a series of steps taken by Diamond Valley water users to come to grips with the problem. To date, the Diamond Natural Resources Protection and Conservation Association (DNRPCA) sponsored two economic analyses by Hansford Economic Consulting that were funded by grants from the Eureka Board of County Commissioners to examine the economics of groundwater management strategies. The Eureka County Conservation District engaged Steve Walker of Walker and Associates to conduct two workshops in Eureka to poll residents as to their concerns, the issues and possible solutions. Steve also privately interviewed a number of water users in Diamond Valley for their input. More recently, the Eureka County Conservation District circulated a questionnaire to all residents in Diamond Valley with valid post office boxes to poll the valley residents – irrigators, ranchers, domestic well users, Devils Gate GID water users, Eureka Town water users, and mining interests – regarding whether or not they backed designation of the basin as a Critical Management Area. Approximately 75 percent of the poll respondents favored such a designation. It is expected that the State Engineer will designate Diamond Valley as a CMA in the near future.
Since there are no CMAs currently on the books in Nevada there are a lot of questions how the whole process is expected to work, who will be in charge, how will the process be financed, how will it be enforced, etc. – in summary, the governance. To quote Jason King, “We are building the airplane and flying it at the same time.” Many stakeholders have voiced an opinion that we need to know how the whole process might work before we can work out the specific actions that might be taken to address the overdraft problem.
The April 23 workshop focused on the governance of a CMA. Steve Lewis led discussions that included:
• Crafting a vision of Diamond Valley agriculture and other water users,
• A review of the events and actions leading up to today,
• Identifying the parameters under which a Plan must operate,
• Describing the duties and characteristics of an ideal governance body,
• How to get more water users involved in the process, and
• Developing a timeline for completing a Groundwater Management Plan.
A committee was formed to consolidate the ideas put forth in the workshop into a format that can be distributed to all water users in Diamond Valley. The summary, prepared by Denise Moyle, Craig
Benson and Jake Tibbitts, was circulated at the June 11th meeting at which time a vision statement for Diamond Valley’s water plan was drafted. It states:
“Diamond Valley and southern Eureka County are prosperous and economically stable by all means including education and diversification. We are a community that is united, fair and forward thinking about our water usage in order to ensure stability for ourselves now and our future generations.”
Discussion then migrated to the goals of a Groundwater Management Plan. The primary goals were identified as
• Balance discharge with recharge to stop the overdraft and help stabilize groundwater levels,
• Maintain the economy of the basin, and
• Avoid unmitigated curtailment of water rights
From there, the conversation flowed to how these goals might be achieved. Topics included:
• What might a governing board look like?
• What powers would a governing board have?
• How will the amount of water available for use each year be determined and how might it be distributed for maximum benefit?
• The importance of accurately measuring how much water is being pumped and monitoring water levels.
• Will a management plan allow water not used in one year to carry over to later years?
Professor Young was enlisted to describe how the Australian experience might be used to formulate management schemes appropriate to Diamond Valley and a number of ideas were bantered about. He stressed that at this early stage, the plan does not need to be perfect and that it should be expected to evolve. The immediate objective should be to develop a “high-level strategic plan” and to identify individuals who can serve as “champions” to guide the plan through to its end. In the end, Professor Young stated he was impressed with the group’s accomplishments to date and the level of involvement by the community.
A workshop to further flesh out the high-level strategic plan was scheduled for Thursday July 16, 2015. It will be moderated by Steve Walker who facilitated the initial sessions sponsored by the Eureka County Conservation District. Professor Young volunteered to attend the workshop and the attendees expressed a desire for State Engineer Jason King to attend. Attendees were invited to each bring at least two new people with them; in particular, residents who own domestic wells and residents who get their water supply from the Eureka Town Water System and the Devils Gate GID Water System because these groups have not been well represented at the previous two workshops.