Water fight takes shape in Northern Nevada

Dec 12, 2014

 A battle over water is brewing on the parched earth of the Black Rock Desert. An effort to transport water from Humboldt County more than 100 miles south has residents and ranchers alarmed. 

A drought stricken Humboldt River near Winnemucca, Nevada.
Credit Chuck Schlarb

Chuck Giordano grows alfalfa on the outskirts of the Black Rock Desert in a place appropriately known as Desert Valley. But don’t let the name fool you. When it comes to water, he’s lucky.

“We have a fairly good reserve of water underneath us because our water table, even with the drought, has hardly dropped any.”

But Giordano is one of the exceptions up here. Many ranchers and farmers in Humboldt County have watched their land dry up and with it their most valuable resource.

Mel Hummel has land next door to the Giordano’s.

“Everybody else they’re having issues with their water tables dropping. They have to dig their wells deeper, drop their pumps. And someday that’s going to run out. We haven’t seen that here yet, but we might.”

This unease, you hear it in the voice of practically everyone who depends on the land out here. Still, drought is nothing new. What’s brought a group of ranchers and farmers together this day is the specter of a pipeline filled with water.

Giordano leads off the conversation at his kitchen table.

“I’m totally against water leaving the county. If you start one place selling water, it’s going to snowball in the future because water is worth more than gold.”

The proposal would transport about 14,000 acre-feet of groundwater from nearby more than 100 miles south—not for agriculture, but for industrial use. The water would come from one of the few basins in this region where the state hasn’t allocated all the water rights yet. But Greg Foster, who ranches just north of where the wells would go, says that doesn’t mean there’s enough water to go around.

“If it’s under-allocated, why are my wells going dry? I don’t know. The ranches are few and far between. The water is even less and further between. Why are we pumping water out of the Black Rock Desert and sending it to wherever.”

In this case, wherever is the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, the new home of Tesla’s Gigafactory—at least that’s the proposed endpoint.

Susan Lynn is with the advocacy group, Great Basin Water Network

“The amount of water they are requesting is 14,000 acre-feet in a basin that supposedly only has 13,000 acre-feet."

Under the proposal, groundwater from the Mud Meadow basin would be transported south via pipeline.
Credit Chuck Schlarb

And just under half of that basin—which runs along the Black Rock Desert Conservation Area—is already going to agriculture.

Lynn says this pipeline would hurt wildlife and drain water from nearby hot springs. She also believes it may not even be legal.

“We have no evidence of any contract between the developer and the water developer, so we’re not sure if there is an actual market for this water, which means it’s speculation.”

Under Nevada law, the state engineer can only grant water rights if there’s a clear beneficial use. Lynn’s group is also trying to stop Southern Nevada’s effort to transport water from eastern Nevada. But unlike that situation, an individual rancher is behind this pipeline: Rodney St. Clair, an Idaho man who owns property in Humboldt. Michael Stanka, whose engineering company is handling St. Clair’s application, spoke on his behalf.

He says transporting the water is legal because it would go to the industrial center near Storey and Lyon Counties.

“They basically understand what we are doing. When their needs grow, they’ll need water. If we can bring them water, they’re definitely interested in it.”

Except the industrial center rejects that. A spokesman says they have no agreement with St. Clair and have no need for the water because they already own enough to support decades of development.

Stanka also hopes to show through studies that more water is in the basin than its current limit. But the state engineer could always reject that and grant them only what’s available. He says this water is up for grabs and belongs to the state, not the county or the neighbors.

“I understand the thought that someone is losing their water, but it’s going to the state of Nevada and Northern Nevada to help out where it’s needed. Right now, it’s not being used, so I don’t feel we are taking it from anybody.”

Not according to Jim French, who’s a Humboldt County Commissioner.

“Any water we pump out of the basins and out of the system is going to be at the expense of somebody else.”

His county, along with Storey, are protesting the application. A hearing is set for next month. French says, like much of the state, basins in the county are over-allocated, and groundwater is not recharging fast enough.

Transporting water out of here, he says, is the last thing they need.

“Once you strip that underground resource—it’s connected, it’s not just the water under that ranch, that water is an aquifer in that entire hydrographic basin—you shut the door on everything else. We’re trying to protect the tax base and the resources for the people who were here first.”

Still, it’s not illegal to pipe water from one place in Nevada to another. And a county can't stop it, although Humboldt is pursuing a water plan that will give them more standing in future cases. State law does require a county to be compensated, though, $10 for every acre-foot per year that leaves. French believes the rate should be much higher to act as a deterrent.

Derek Kauneckis teaches political sciences and studies water policy at the University of Nevada, Reno. He says there’s a trade off in situations like this, particularly when transporting groundwater.

“There are certainly economic benefits. It [groundwater] is our only new water resource that’s available for Nevada. There’s a good case to be made for growing our industrial base, especially with new industries coming there, and especially with the impact of the Recession on the state. Underlying that, though, is this idea of traditional uses and those who have benefited form water resources in the past.”

He says the best system would reward farmers, who have current water rights, for transferring it out of their area.

Ultimately, the state engineer will decide whether this particular water stays. But those watching the water situation believe this is just the cusp. Increasingly, farms are being bought up for their water. A few years ago, one of the biggest operations, Winnemucca Farms, sold half of its assets for 30 million dollars to a New York City-based investment firm, called Water Asset Management LLC. That’s made people here nervous more water could be destined for somewhere else.

Requests for comment from the firm were not returned.

Back at the Giordano’s kitchen table, ranchers, like Jessie Fry, are worried about their future. 

View from Chuck Giordano's farm in Humboldt County.
Credit Will Stone

“Start with one person selling water, and everybody else will think why not get right in the middle of this? And then the folks who do want to continue on are going to have a hard time.”

With water dwindling statewide, the ranchers in Humboldt wont be the only ones left thirsty.