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December 20, 2014

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Legislature wades into water law

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Tiffany Brown

Water levels remain low March 16 at Lake Mead after years of drought. The Nevada Legislature will consider several bills that will affect laws governing water, its distribution and its sources.

Water is already a dicey topic in Nevada.

Once fast-growing Southern Nevada is seeking a secondary water source from the less-populated eastern counties.

In the north, residents and environmentalists are fighting to restore river habitat, protect Lake Tahoe and ensure residents and industries have the water they need.

But exactly how all of that should be done isn’t just a matter of buying water rights and negotiating with neighbors — it’s also a matter of law.

The current Legislature has more than 20 bill draft requests for changes to state water law. Many of the potential laws deal with how a property owner can use his water or share water with different areas of the state.

The latter is a topic that has grown increasingly controversial as Southern Nevada seeks to diversify its water supply by pumping water it has purchased the rights to in eastern Nevada to Las Vegas, and Northern Nevadans similarly try to work out how to balance the water needs of the people and industries in more populated areas with the needs of the residents and wildlife in the basins where the water originates.

Potential legislation concerning interbasin transfers include:

• A bill draft request from the Senate Natural Resources Committee to fund a study of the economic impact of water importation projects and development of a “sensible” statewide water strategy.

• A bill draft request from Assemblyman Peter Goicoechea, R-Eureka, for a law that would require the completion of an inventory of an entire water basin before consideration of an interbasin transfer.

• A bill draft request from the Assembly Government Affairs Committee to increase the fee for intercounty and interstate transfers of ground water.

• A bill draft request from the Legislative Public Lands Committee for financing for the state engineer to develop a hydrologic database for water basins in Nevada.

Further, Senate Bill 204, submitted by Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora, could also affect interbasin transfers as well as those drilling small wells for personal use.

The law would require the state engineer to post a notice of an application to appropriate the water not only in the county from which the water would be taken, but also in every other county that could be affected.

It would also require the applicant to notify any property owners within 2,500 feet of the boundary of the parcel that contains the proposed well.

There’s also a battle brewing over how Nevadans can use the water from their sinks and showers — called gray water.

Gray water is commonly used on golf courses in Nevada and has been growing in popularity in Arizona, California and Australia for residential landscape watering.

Senate Bill 126, submitted by Sen. Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, would require local governments to allow the reuse of gray water in single-family residences; require water suppliers to include an increase in the reuse of gray water as a part of their plans for water conservation; authorize water suppliers to provide incentives for the installation and use of gray water systems and require the state Environmental Commission to adopt regulations on the reuse of gray water.

A similar bill draft request was also submitted by Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority is strongly opposing the pro-gray water legislation. In recent weeks representatives of the authority have spoken out against use of gray water systems for office or residential applications.

The agency is trying to keep private gray water systems from becoming more common in the state, even petitioning the Green Building Counsel to eliminate gray water systems from its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for municipalities that recycle water.

Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy said at a recent Urban Land Institute luncheon that adopting private gray water systems would not create a single drop of water for the state.

And Kay Brothers, deputy general manager of engineering and operations, recently said at a water law seminar that installing gray water systems actually encourages people to use more municipal water.

The authority thinks it would be wasteful to put the water from office sinks and residential washing machines to use watering xeriscapes rather than letting it pour down the drain, run down the Las Vegas Wash and be returned to Lake Mead.

Gray water users and advocates have disputed these claims.

After all, for every gallon of water you run down the drain and the Water Authority can return to the lake, it can take another gallon out, giving it resources beyond the 300,000 acre-feet it is allotted from the Colorado River each year.

Other potential water law legislation includes:

• The addition of a representatives from Sparks to the Western Regional Water Commission (Senate Bill 111).

• The addition of a representative from the local American Indian tribe to the Northern Nevada Water Planning Commission (SB111).

• The authorization for county commissions in counties with populations between 100,000 and 400,000 (essentially Washoe County) to create and operate flood management projects. (Senate Bill 175)

• Authorizing counties with between 100,000 and 400,000 residents to require property owners with private wells to hook up to municipal water systems when available. (Assembly Bill 54)

• Requiring the state engineer to reject protests to applications to appropriate water from government agencies if the functional head of that agency has not signed the protest documents. (Assembly Bill 276)

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