In the nation’s driest state, water emerged as a uniting issue among lawmakers and conservation groups during the state’s legislative session.
This year saw a deluge of water conservation bills, from retiring water rights to septic tank removal and mitigating pit lakes to revisions for outdated water laws.
While Nevada received some much-needed relief from heavy snowfall this winter, it’s clear one good water year won’t be enough to reverse the state’s growing drought. And with about a week to go in the session, the number of significant water-related bills still in play has shrunk, like the reservoirs and groundwater they are aiming to protect.
Unlike other legislative sessions, a number of water-related bills have been labeled “good” by conservationists and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
That collaborative spirit may be a result of major bills being sponsored by lawmakers and legislative committees, rather than the Nevada Division of Water Resources like in past years, say environmental groups.
“We didn’t have to fight for our lives against proposals to allow bogus accounting gimmicks and specious management schemes crafted by water developers and extractionists,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. “The fact that lawmakers didn’t give that the time of day was a welcome gesture. You may recall the 2017, 2019 and 2021 sessions were fraught with some of the most dangerous water proposals in the western United States.”
In fact, two of the most active legislators championing water conservation bills during the session were Democratic Assemblyman Howard Watts of Las Vegas and Republican state Senator Pete Goicoechea of rural White Pine County.
After years of fighting for better funding, the Nevada Division of Water Resources is also set to receive a $3.1 million budget increase over the next two years to address application backlogs and staffing shortages. The motion to increase the agency’s budget was approved unanimously by the budget committee.
‘It’s a good bill’
One major water-related bill still in play with significant bipartisan support is Assembly Bill 220, sponsored by the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources and backed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
The bill is an effort to phase out the use of septic tanks in homes relying on municipal water, and connect them to the water efficient sewer system instead. The bill would also give the Southern Nevada Water Authority the ability to curtail water use when Lake Mead hits critical elevations in times of shortage.
Another bill sponsored by Goicoechea and supported by conservation groups, Senate Bill 176, would help address and avoid conflicts over groundwater by purchasing rights from those willing to sell.
If passed, the measure would allow the state to buy water rights, similar to water markets in other states, and retire those rights rather than depleting groundwater through unfettered use.
But conservation groups say paltry funding for the bill will hamper its effectiveness, despite its popularity and wide-ranging support. According to the bills fiscal note, the state account to buy water rights will likely only receive about $250,000.
“I doubt it will be funded,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a partner with the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition.
“But retiring water rights is an excellent way to take water off the books, which is something we need here. So it’s a good bill. Now someone just has to come up with millions of dollars to fund it,” he continued.
Lawmakers in surrounding states have reached into their coffers and secured funding for water-related issues. Earlier this year, Utah committed more than $500 million for water conservation and management. In 2022, lawmakers in Arizona passed a bill investing more than $1 billion to preserve water supplies in Arizona.
“We blew a major opportunity this year to undertake a meaningful effort to begin balancing our groundwater basins. Replete with cash from COVID bailouts, we had the ability to truly invest in new groundwater basin reconnaissance efforts that are expensive but necessary for us to grapple with the changing and over-allocated hydrologic conditions around the state,” Roerink said.
One of those missed opportunities was when Assembly Bill 387 failed to make it out of the Senate Natural Resource Committee last week, said Donnelly. The bill would have clarified the state engineer’s authority to use the best available science to manage groundwater, and to manage groundwater from a single aquifer cohesively, even if the aquifer spans multiple basins.
The bill had the potential to be a powerful tool for managing water during times of drought, especially as conflicts over water rights increase with the lack of precipitation and snowfall.
“We worked for months with a collaborative team of water stakeholders: environmentalists, rural water users, agriculture, local government, the state engineer, municipal water providers — heck, even mining had a seat at the table and made productive contributions,” Donnelly said. “We were extremely disappointed when, in the end, the bill was hijacked by extractive users and the real estate industry, who made pernicious amendments designed to kill the bill.”
The bill was opposed by powerful development interests, including the Coyote Springs Investment, a master planned community developer, and the Vidler Water Company, a water speculator group.
“In the end, despite diverse support and the months of painstaking work, the bill died in committee, a victim of the greed of water speculators and the callowness of moneyed interests throwing their weight around rural Nevada,” he continued.
The failure of the bill left conservation groups “feeling very pessimistic about the future of water management in Nevada and the ability to overcome institutional opposition from the state’s power players,” said Donnelly.
Jennifer Solis is a reporter with the Nevada Current, a nonprofit online source of political and policy news and commentary.