By Sandra Ramaker
The five members of The Virgin Valley Water Board (VVWB), which serves both Mesquite and Bunkerville, are split over how so-called “excess” water should be handled. Members Barbara
Ellestad, Richard Bowler, and Nephi Julian, seem to consider “excess” river water as “real property” to be purchased, leased or traded to the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) to support the Las Vegas Metropolitan area. I disagree.
In Nevada water belongs to the public. However, the state also treats water rights as “real property,” to be bought, sold, leased and transferred for a profit. Legal scholars call this type of property
right “usufruct.” That means the right of the few to profit from water owned by the public or the government on behalf of the people.
Board member Robert (Bubba) Smith, feels that the sales or leasing of water to SNWA has “dried up our valley.” He and I feel that the community has not yet felt the full consequences of these activities.
The VVWB has a limited number of water permits and even fewer certifications (that is water has been shown to be put to beneficial use). The drought makes water availability uncertain. Then there is the unrestrained growth in both the Las Vegas and St. George, and Washington County Utah. Meeting those water demands potentially drains water from local acquirers because of the interrelationship between acquirers. Of course, the possibility of fracking over the local basins still exists.
Contrary to statements by some, no one actually knows how much actual “wet” water actually exists compared to the “paper” water listed on water permits. Studies used in an outdated VVWB master plan were based upon precipitation rates some dating back to 1969.
Even Nevada Water Engineer Jason King is uncertain. In 2015 King told a Desert Valley Times reporter when asked about the amount of water in the local acquirer, “I’m not sure how much water is in the aquifer now; I couldn’t even estimate how much is there.” The Districts hydrologist in the same article said: “It would take extensive work to figure out how much water is in the aquifer right now.”
Ellestad has publically stated that adequate water exists for economic development. She also publically stated that she would vote against spending studies by the U.S. Geological Survey to study the issues as “too expensive.” Current federal grants, especially for drought-impacted areas, are available.
In 2010 a VVWB study by RBF Consulting, Las Vegas, concludes that recharging and storing Virgin River water shares in shallow acquirers (500 feet) locally was feasible for water banking. Nonetheless, the VVWB, Mesquite Irrigation Company (MIC) and the Bunkerville Irrigation Company (BIC) sell, lease or trade local water shares to the SNWA, who wisely stores that water in their water bank for future use. They also could potentially use that water as part of the “return flow credit,” program.
The “return flow credit,” program allows the SNWA to treat wastewater and return it to the Colorado River (Lake Meade). Doing so subtracts from their permits an equal amount of water. That subtraction allows them to continue to use water that would otherwise have hit their permit limit. They estimate that this process increases their water availability by about 75%.
This conflict between keeping the water local or sending it to SNWA came to a head after I voted against the VVWB budget earlier this year. I said: “The budget intentionally hides from the public the intent by some on this board to make money from share leasing while ignoring the importance of keeping our water here to best serve the public.”
In a board meeting on June 21st, Ellestad and Bowler wrongly interpreted the statement as a potential criminal acquisition against board members. Ellestad tried unsuccessfully to goad me into making criminal charges against her so she could bring in her attorneys and divert attention from my concerns.
When Ellestad, who edits the Mesquite Local News (MLN) delivered her weekly newspaper a few days later, a bold faced banner read: “Statement Suggested Illegal Activity.” Let me be clear. It was Bowler and Ellestad who intentionally spun the “illegal activity,” concept for MLN reporter Burton Weast to “report” as “news.”
The board is economically sound with about $7.1 million in reserve. It is risky and unnecessary to make deals that send water to feed the unrestrained growth of the Las Vegas area via the SNWA.
Public water is the limiting factor to economic growth for the area. The right to water should not be trumped by the right of the few to make a profit from public water.