Agency requests proposals to change Nevada water law

If you've ever dreamed of writing your own version of Nevada water law, here's your chance.

The Nevada Division of Water Resources is accepting draft language for a change in state law aimed at clarifying the confusion raised by a recent state Supreme Court ruling.

The request for submissions was announced Tuesday during a state workshop held in Las Vegas and Carson City to address the potential fallout from the decision.

On Jan. 28, the Supreme Court ruled that rural water rights issued to the Southern Nevada Water Authority might not be valid because the state's chief water regulator took longer than a year to grant them.

The authority's applications for groundwater rights across rural Clark, Lincoln and White Pine counties were not considered by the state engineer for almost two decades, after many people who initially protested them had died or moved away.

Both state regulators and water authority officials have asked the justices to reconsider their unanimous decision.

Those who took part in Tuesday's workshop offered a wide range of opinions about the ruling.

Several attorneys who specialize in water law said it could jeopardize pending water applications but would not extend, as some have predicted, to thousands of water rights issued over a 55-year period.

Others argued that the potential effects are dire enough to warrant a quick fix to state law, even if it means calling lawmakers into another special session later this year.

But one lawyer at the heart of the issue said the Supreme Court's decision has "fallen victim to a fair amount of exaggeration and overheated rhetoric."

New Mexico-based environmental attorney Simeon Herskovits represents the group of conservationists and rural Nevada residents who sued for the right to participate in state hearings on the water authority's applications. That 2006 lawsuit triggered last month's Supreme Court ruling.

Herskovits said the justices were careful to word their opinion so it only applies to the authority's plans to pipe groundwater to Las Vegas from across eastern Nevada. He said the ruling poses "no danger" to other existing water rights or the all-important priority order of pending water applications now on file with the state.

He added that any lingering confusion or concern should be cleared up "in a month or two" by the Supreme Court or by the lower court to which the case has returned.

"We think rushing to legislate a solution would be entirely inappropriate" while the courts are still in the process of hearing the matter, Herskovits said.

Already, though, the ruling is being cited in connection with water applications that have nothing to do with the authority's pipeline project. In a letter to the state engineer last week, the U.S. Department of Interior argued that an upcoming hearing on a Northern Nevada water project should be delayed because of the Supreme Court's action.

Tuesday's workshop was held at the behest of the Legislature, which declined to consider a hastily crafted fix to state water law during a special session that ended March 1.

Instead, lawmakers called on state regulators to hold hearings and gather input before drafting a final proposal for the Legislature to consider.

Chief Hearing Officer Susan Joseph-Taylor said the Division of Water Resources will accept suggested changes to the law through March 26. The proposals will be posted on the division's Web site as they come in, and people will be able to comment on the suggestions through April 2.

After that, Joseph-Taylor said, acting State Engineer Jason King will decide whether another public workshop is needed to polish the final language.

If King and company decide the finished measure cannot wait until the Legislature reconvenes in 2011, they will have to persuade Gov. Jim Gibbons to call another special session.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at or 702-383-0350.