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Officials seek Gold Butte reduction to guarantee water supplies

Water officials in Mesquite have asked the Trump administration to shrink the size of Gold Butte National Monument to ensure the community’s access to springs it plans to use as a future water supply.

Short of a boundary adjustment, the Virgin Valley Water District is requesting specific changes to the Obama-era proclamation that established the monument, which utility officials say threatens to cut them off from six crucial springs in the Virgin Mountains.

“If we could get one of those two to occur for us, we would be very, very happy,” said Kevin Brown, general manager of the water district that serves the northeastern corner of Clark County.

Brown made his pitch in person on July 30, when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited Nevada as part of his review of 22 national monuments created by presidential decree since Jan. 1, 1996.

Brown said he was part of a small group of people who met with Zinke for about 10 minutes at a private residence in Bunkerville.

“He listened to the information,” he said. “He didn’t show his hand one way or the other.”

Future growth depends on springs

Current projections show that Mesquite will outgrow its existing supply of groundwater within the next 20 years or so, though Brown said it could happen as much as a decade sooner if the population continues to surge in the city 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

Tapping the springs in the Virgin Mountains about 10 miles south of Mesquite could provide an additional 2,500 acre-feet of water a year on top of the roughly 12,200 acre-feet of groundwater the district currently has at its disposal.

The proclamation President Barack Obama signed on Dec. 28, 2016, to designate the monument does spell out protections for “valid existing water rights” in the area, but Brown said the document includes “a lot of wiggle room” for federal officials to restrict access.

Local officials want new language added to the proclamation that specifically references the water district’s interests and “doesn’t leave any room for interpretation,” Brown said.

The other option, he said, is to move the monument’s northern boundary 5 or 6 miles to the south so it excludes the six springs and all of the water district’s service territory.

By Brown’s count, the change would cut about 24 square miles from the roughly 460-square-mile monument.

Conservationists oppose carve-out

Conservationists strongly oppose the idea.

“Honestly, we advocated for greater boundaries. We feel there have been compromises made already,” said Jaina Moan, executive director of Friends of Gold Butte.

She sees no need to change the proclamation, either. As far as Moan is concerned, Gold Butte’s founding document already includes ample protections for Mesquite’s water rights and its ability to develop them in the future.

In fact, Moan said, the water rights and rights of way Mesquite plans to use someday are now protected by federal law thanks to the proclamation.

“They never had that before,” she said.

Before his July 30 meeting with Brown and others, Zinke took a helicopter tour of Gold Butte and Basin and Range National Monument in remote Lincoln and Nye counties.

He has yet to announce any recommendations for the two Nevada monuments.

Zinke is due to wrap up his review and deliver his final report to Trump by the end of the month.

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

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