NV water rights holders have little choice but to sell, regulators say

After two decades of dwindling aquifers, landowners in northern and central Nevada are choosing to transfer their groundwater rights to the state in exchange for cash payments, and more are lining up.

Everyone from family farmers to residents of mid-sized cities depend on groundwater in Nevada, but overpumping and persistent drought mean there simply isn’t enough water.

The Voluntary Water Rights Retirement Program was awarded a total of $25 million in funding last year to address groundwater conflicts by purchasing groundwater rights from private landowners in pumped and over-appropriated basins in northern and central Nevada communities, and there was tremendous interest .

Although the program is only available to landowners in about half of Nevada’s counties, water rights sellers have offered to sell a total of $65.5 million in water rights within months — about $40 million more than available financing, according to Nevada Current.

“Farmers want to farm,” said Jeff Fontaine, executive director of the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority and the Humboldt River Basin Water Authority. “But a lot of them see the writing on the wall.”

Across the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority region – an agency created to proactively address water resource issues in the region – there are 25 groundwater basins that are over-appropriated, eight of which are also over-pumped. A pumped-over basin is a basin that is being drained faster than it is being replenished.

Water regulators have until September to enter into contractual agreements and acquire these groundwater rights, but as of May the program has already received commitments to decommission more than 25,000 hectares of groundwater annually. That’s about the average amount of water in both Boca Reservoir and Donner Lake in a given year.

“We’re going to do that in a year,” James Settelmeyer, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said Friday during a meeting of the Joint Interim Standing Committee on Natural Resources.

Due to the high interest in the program, not every application will result in a purchase, but state water regulators noted that no applicants have voluntarily withdrawn from the program.

“We had some of the oldest farms in the state that wanted to be sold,” Settelmeyer said, adding that the decision came down to the rising costs of digging deeper and deeper wells to reach the shrinking water table.

Water rights holders wonder, “Do I drill another well or take my old well and go down another 200 to 300 feet? Or should I watch this show?” he said, adding: “There are some who are getting older and may not have someone willing to take over the building.”

Nevada landowners understand they are between a rock and a hard place, local water regulators said.

Fontaine, the executive director of the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority and the Humboldt River Basin Water Authority, said sharply declining groundwater levels motivated farmers in Humboldt County’s Middle Reese River Valley and Antelope Valley to sell.

“Some of the applicants we spoke to thought they would have to spend potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars to deepen their sources. And at some point they realized that the situation was not going to get better anytime soon,” Fontaine said during the Friday meeting.

The bulk of the funding will likely go to Eureka’s Diamond Valley, a small farming community in central Nevada, and the state’s only “critical management area,” as designated by the Nevada State Water Engineer. The designation means the valley’s groundwater levels are falling rapidly and groundwater rights holders in the area must develop a plan to address overpumping or risk losing their rights.

More water rights than water

If all sales go through, the state expects to retire about 30% of Diamond Valley’s annual groundwater yield, Fontaine said.

Water regulators said the program application process was intended to purchase water rights that are regularly used and weed out water rights sellers who have not pumped in the past five years, effectively addressing shrinking aquifers in northern and central Nevada.

Decades of granting more water rights than actual available water have put Nevada in a difficult position. Before electricity and modern pumping technology were available, there was little threat of an aquifer being drained “but times have changed,” Fontaine said.

“The state has over-appropriated these groundwater basins. In the past, it was thought that water users would not utilize their full allocations,” he said.

Colorado, Kansas and Oregon have established similar programs. But these programs have not seen the level of interest and demand that Nevada’s water pension program has.

“There was a lot of interest in this program. In fact, I would say it exceeded our expectations,” said Fontaine.

During the meeting, water managers and conservation groups in the state emphasized the need to establish a permanent statewide voluntary water rights pension program, based on the success of the limited program currently available to select counties.

Republican Senator Pete Goicoechea of ​​Nevada sponsored a bill in 2023 that would have created a statewide program to purchase and revoke water rights. But the legislation never made it to the floor for a vote.

“As we enter the next legislative term, we have the opportunity to leverage this pilot project and its lessons and create a stable funding mechanism to ensure we can seize these opportunities in the future,” said Peter Stanton, the CEO of the Walker. Lake Conservancy, which focuses on restoring and maintaining Walker Lake.