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April 16, 2014

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Lawmakers to tackle water rights during special session

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Assemblyman David Bobzien greets Assemblymen Joe Hardy, left, and Mo Denis before the start of the first day of the legislative special session Tuesday, February 23, 2010 in Carson City.

Updated Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2010 | 11:05 a.m.

Special Session - Day 1

Senator Bill Raggio (R) talks to State Budget Director Andrew Clinger during the first day of the legislative special session Tuesday, February 23, 2010 in Carson City. Launch slideshow »

CARSON CITY – Gov. Jim Gibbons says “50 years of water rights can go right down the tube” unless the law is amended during the special session of the Legislature that opened today.

Gibbons said he intends to add the water rights issue to the agenda that now includes how to close an $881 million shortfall in tax revenue.

The issue came to the forefront when the Nevada Supreme Court ruled state engineer Mike Turnipseed violated the law in 2007 when he approved rights for the Southern Nevada Water Authority to withdraw 40,000 acre-feet a year from the Spring Valley in eastern Nevada.

The court ruled Turnipseed didn't make the decision within the required one-year time limit and sent the case back to District Court Judge Norman Robison to decide whether the authority is required to file new applications or if Turnipseed must only reopen the protest period and the hearings.

The water authority filed its applications in 1989 but the state didn't approve the Spring Valley applications until 2007. Land owners and environmentalists protested the approval and a suit was filed.

Allen Biaggi, director of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, says a simple fix can be made to the law to protect the 14,500 water rights issued since 1947. The small change wouldn't give the Southern Nevada Water Authority "any leg up," he said.

Under the plan, the Supreme Court ruling on the water authority case would still stand and Robison would still hold the hearing.

Biaggi said the 2003 Legislature passed a law eliminating the one-year requirement for the state engineer to make a decision. He said the proposal to be presented to the special session would make it clear that that law was retroactive, thereby protecting those who received water rights.

After the Supreme Court decision, the water authority refiled hundreds of its applications for water rights in rural Nevada to pipe water to Las Vegas.

The governor said the ruling of the Supreme Court, if applied retroactively, could affect 50 years of development in Nevada and spark a long water controversy in the future.

“We don’t need that issue,” the governor said.

Susan Lynn, head of the Great Basin Water Network, said her environmental group has been getting confusing signals about the issue. She heard rumors the Legislature wouldn't consider the water issue unless there was consensus.

“There is not consensus,” said Lynn, one of the opponents of the water authority. She said there were rumors there were ongoing negotiations to resolve the issue. “There have been none.”

Lynn said she wants to see the proposed legislation before commenting directly on it.

Gibbons said he need only to get the correct language for the water bill and then get the signature of Secretary of State Ross Miller before the issue is added to the session agenda.

CORRECTION: This story was changed to correct that Mike Turnipseed, not Tracy Taylor, was the state engineer in the case. | (February 23, 2010)

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