The fight over future water development in Pahrump is in the hands of the Nevada Supreme Court after a district judge struck down a move by state regulators to restrict residential groundwater wells in the town 60 miles west of Las Vegas.
The high court has granted an emergency stay of the lower court ruling while the state pursues its appeal.
Last month, District Judge Steven Elliott reversed an unprecedented order from State Engineer Jason King that banned new domestic wells in Nye County’s largest town.
Nevada’s top water regulator issued the ban in December 2017 in hopes of slowing the decline of the community’s “severely over-appropriated” groundwater supply, which he said could not support the addition of new wells on top of existing water rights.
A coalition of local residents and business owners calling itself Pahrump Fair Water LLC took the state engineer’s office to court over the ban, accusing King of trying to solve an accounting error by punishing land owners and well drillers in the community of about 39,000 people.
Debra Strickland owns a well-drilling company in Pahrump and helped set up the coalition. She since has been elected to the Nye County Commission.
Reached for comment Wednesday, she said she had not yet heard about the Supreme Court’s decision to put the lower court’s ruling on hold pending the state’s appeal.
“I’m disappointed,” Strickland said. “We’re still back where we started back in December 2017 after all this litigation and after Judge Elliott did such a great job.”
Under King’s order, property owners cannot sink a new domestic well in Pahrump unless they first buy and “retire” 2 acre-feet of existing water rights in the valley by signing the rights over to the state.
One acre-foot of water is enough to supply two average Las Vegas Valley homes for just over a year.
According to the state engineer, more than 79,000 acre-feet of water rights have been issued in the Pahrump Valley, but the aquifer there can sustain only about 20,000 acre-feet of annual pumping.
In his ruling against the ban, Elliott said King’s order lacked the proper authority or evidence to back it up and wrongly issued it without prior notice or public hearings.
Through a spokeswoman Tuesday, King and others from the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources declined to comment on the case while its under appeal.
Pahrump is home to roughly 11,000 domestic wells, the highest concentration in Nevada. Under state law, each of those wells is allowed to pump up to 2 acre-feet of groundwater a year, but few residential properties in Pahrump use that much.
Within a month of the Nov. 8 court hearing at which Elliott initially said he would strike down the ban, the state engineer’s office received 154 well-drilling notices from Pahrump landowners looking to capitalize on the court ruling.
Only 377 new domestic wells were drilled statewide all of last year, according to JoAnn Kittrell, spokeswoman for the Nevada Division of Water Resources.