Mesquite loses place in line for water rights

When the Nevada Supreme Court issued a new interpretation of state water law earlier this year, it triggered a race to Carson City, as water managers scrambled to refile old applications and preserve their all-important place in line.

Meet the loser of that race: the Virgin Valley Water District.

The water purveyor for Mesquite and Bunkerville refiled its applications the Monday after the ruling came down, but it was already too late.

Within hours of the Supreme Court’s Jan. 28 decision, Lincoln County and Vidler Water Co. filed for some of the same water Mesquite officials hope to use to fuel future development in their city.

Because state law requires water applications to be considered in the order they come in, a high-priority spot at the front of the line can mean the difference between getting all the water you ask for or winding up with nothing.

And if the Supreme Court’s ruling ends up nullifying thousands of pending water applications, as some have predicted, the Virgin Valley Water District could suddenly find itself at the back of the line.

“It was a race to Carson City, and we got there as fast as we could. It just wasn’t fast enough,” said Michael Johnson, chief hydrologist for the water district. “They beat us by about 36 hours or one business day.”

The Virgin Valley Water District serves about 23,000 residents at the northeastern corner of Clark County, with enough water rights in reserve to supply 20,000 more. If the Mesquite area is to grow beyond that, it will need to find additional water resources, Johnson said.

“Is that 10 years out? Is that 50 years out? It’s impossible to say,” he said. “That crystal ball is opaque right now.”

Mesquite’s population has increased more than 10-fold in the past 20 years, but growth slowed when the recession took hold.

Mayor Susan Holecheck expects things to pick back up eventually, and she’s confident the water district will be able to meet that challenge, despite the recent setback.

“They don’t have all their eggs in one basket,” she said. “I think we’ve got a real comfort level with water.”

The trouble comes down to timing, said Mesquite City Manager Tim Hacker. The community can’t wait until it exhausts its current water supply and then go ask for more. “If that’s when you start asking, it’s too late,” he said.

The district draws water from the Virgin River Valley groundwater basin, a vast watershed that stretches roughly 80 miles from the northern tip of Lake Mead to Beaver Dam State Park on the Utah border.

Most of the basin lies in Lincoln County, but virtually all the people it serves live in Clark County.

But that could change, said Vidler President Dorothy Palmer.

Most of the water Lincoln County applied for in the Virgin River Valley basin would supply 13,000 acres now in the hands of private developers just north of Mesquite and the Clark County line.

“It’s a bigger area than Mesquite. It could be bigger (in population) than Mesquite one day,” Palmer said.

The rest of the water Lincoln County wants would be used to operate a natural gas and solar power plant slated to be built about 12 miles north of Mesquite.

The two applications Lincoln County and Vidler filed on Jan. 28 essentially duplicate ones the county originally submitted in 1998.

The 45 applications the Virgin Valley Water District filed on Feb. 1 were carbon copies of filings it made starting in 1989, including 15 applications to pump water from the Lincoln County side of the basin.

The district’s pending applications in the basin total nearly 225,000 acre-feet, which is enough to supply about 450,000 average homes in Las Vegas.

In that respect, Palmer said her firm and its client are the little guys in this particular fight, even though Vidler ranks as one of the largest water resource development companies in the Southwest.

As far as she is concerned, the Virgin Valley Water District’s massive filing is not much different than the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s controversial scheme to supply Las Vegas with groundwater from across eastern Nevada. Both are attempts to “move water out of Lincoln County,” she said.

“If they get their priority back, they’ll take all of Lincoln County’s water,” Palmer said of the water district. “They’ll get it all.”

Actually, there is no guarantee that anyone will be granted permission to pump more water from the basin, regardless of when they filed their applications.

Nevada’s chief water regulator, acting State Engineer Jason King, said the Virgin River Valley is “close to being overappropriated” as it is, though he acknowledged that new test pumping may be needed to know for sure.

In any case, it seems likely that the first applicant in line could end up with whatever groundwater is left in the basin, leaving nothing for anyone else.

“It would bother me that there is a potential there to all of a sudden lose my priority,” King said of the situation facing the Virgin Valley Water District. “Going from senior applicant to junior certainly wouldn’t set well with me.”

Of course, none of this might matter in the end.

With the backing of the Virgin Valley Water District and others, both the state and the Southern Nevada Water Authority have asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision.

Meanwhile, King and other state officials are drafting a proposed change in the law aimed at blunting any impacts from the high court’s ruling. The measure is expected to be taken up by the 2011 Legislature, assuming it doesn’t have another a special session before then.

But even if the legislative fix fails and the ruling stands, Palmer and others predict no real impact to existing water rights or pending applications.

Palmer said such broad implications have been overblown. In her opinion, the Supreme Court’s action shouldn’t upset the order of priority for pending applications in the slightest.

“I don’t think Virgin Valley Water District has much to worry about,” she said.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

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