New water level

At the Sante Fe River, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson announced a water agenda for his state.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said if he is elected president he will try to create a Cabinet department to deal with water resources and water policy.

Speaking in an interview with the RN&R after the Democratic presidential candidates’ forum in Carson City last week, Richardson said, “I think it’s that level of urgency.” He said he thought the water policy department would be particularly useful in handling water transfer applications that have swept rural Western areas to feed urban growth.

When asked what guidelines he would use in approaching water transfers of the kind that have pitted rural areas in Nevada against Reno and Las Vegas, Richardson declined to name any, instead saying he would follow the lead of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. He was presumably referring to a period preceding creation of the Cabinet department. Richardson said it will take congressional action to remove authority over water issues from other departments, principally the Interior Department, and invest it in the new department.

One indication of the urgency Western officialdom places on water came at the Nevada Legislature the same day that Richardson offered his proposal. Southern Nevada Water Authority manager Patricia Mulroy called for fast legislative action to allow her jurisdiction to raid water supplies in smaller counties.

“We must have a back up supply to protect Southern Nevada during a long, protracted drought,” she told the legislators.

Richardson’s home state of New Mexico, like Nevada, has experienced severe droughts and, in fact, is in one now.

As New Mexico’s governor and a former member of Congress, Richardson was able to demonstrate a familiarity with Western water issues at the Carson City forum that none of the other candidates could. One of them, Tom Vilsack of Iowa, candidly said he needed to bring himself up to speed on the problem in the west: “In my state the water issue is quality. In your state, it’s quantity.” (Vilsack has since withdrawn from the presidential race.)

Resource limits
In 2003 in a message to the Nevada Legislature, Sen. Reid quoted Mark Twain saying something he never actually said, “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.”

If the quote was apocryphal, the importance of water in the West that it expresses is not. “This statement by one-time Nevadan Mark Twain is truer than ever,” Reid said. “Worldwide and in Nevada, that is what we address—water. Water is a problem.”

Nevada has instigated many water wars, and there is no sign that they will end anytime soon. They currently include:

• An effort by the Las Vegas Valley to grab water from eastern Nevada and Western Utah and due process objections to a state law restricting who can protest the grab.

• An effort by the Virgin Valley Water District to grab water from the Beaver Dam Wash in Arizona.

• Efforts by developers to tap aquifers around the edges of the Pyramid Lake tribal reservation.

• A new policy of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of filing formal legal protests against all water transfers, a practice that some developers say could slow growth down to a crawl.

• A National Park Service protest against a water application in the Amargosa Valley that locals say is impeding construction of a strip mall.

• Assemblymember Edwin Goedert’s legislation to speed up handling of protests of water applications.

• Proposed creation by the 2007 Nevada Legislature of a massive water agency to deal with Truckee Meadows water issues.

The effort to transfer rural water to Las Vegas has been particularly bitter, as corners have been cut to move the project along. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has even opposed delays to make sure that pipelines are routed in ways that are environmentally sensitive and protect habitat. Sen. Reid, who was instrumental in the Clinton administration’s action blocking transfer of water to Reno from the Honey Lake region (along the California/Nevada in northwest Nevada), has taken a different stance on the Las Vegas transfer. In December, he got a measure easing the way for it attached to a trade bill and approved by Congress.

Get them talking
Some areas of Richardson’s home state of New Mexico have an unusual system that emphasizes shared water as a community resource, and his apparent comfort level with it makes for interesting speculation on his policies as president. In his state, there are about 1,500 local water systems with uncommon authority over their water and thus over transfer of water out of their jurisdictions. Known as acequias, they are a product of pre-U.S. influences, including the Pueblo era. Their water is treated legally as a shared resource rather than a commodity.

The authority of the acequias was supposedly restricted by a water law enacted in 1907—a law that some have analogized to laws that took Native American lands—but it has never been fully enforced. This structure preceded Richardson’s governorship, but in 2003 he supported and signed legislation to give the acequias specific authority to rule on water transfers. New Mexico acequias advocate Paula Garcia called the legislation “historic affirmation of the role of the acequias as democratic institutions of local self-governance.” It is closer to the model for Western water management proposed in 1878 by 19th century explorer John Wesley Powell for the West but rejected by Congress as an obstacle to Western development and dam building. Nevertheless, such community-based systems thrive in places like New Mexico, Utah and some individual Western communities.

In working out problems among the contending parties, Richardson got them together to talk and hash out differences, a scenario he has used repeatedly at various points in his career as a member of Congress, energy secretary and diplomat. On May 30 last year, Richardson signed one water rights settlement at Taos that had been worked out among Taos Pueblo, the town of Taos, the state attorney general, the Taos Valley acequias association, the local water and sewer district and 12 consumer organizations.

The urgency he describes on water issues is real around the West, where water long ago was mostly over-allocated and is treated in most places as a commercial commodity rather than a public resource. Nine Western states’ water laws—Nevada is among them—are governed by “prior appropriations”—a legal doctrine developed in the Western mining era that basically comes down to “first come, first served,” a philosophy that allows no room for need or public interest priorities. A city’s 1904 water rights, say, are inferior to a ranch’s 1877 water rights, giving the ranch the authority to satisfy its water needs from a river before the city—and cutting the city out in drought years before the ranch.

In addition, many states have a “use it or lose it” policy in their water laws that encourages waste.

New Mexico’s shared water practices do not, of course, protect it from the vagaries of nature and during a sustained drought, Richardson has presided over a multi-million dollar “water innovation fund” that offers rewards for idea on how to improve the state’s water picture. “A problem with this level of urgency requires creative, cutting-edge ideas that offer workable solutions for New Mexico’s water future,” Richardson said.

Just before his reelection last year, he declared 2007—the centennial of the 1907 water law—to be the “Year of Water” in the state and offered a water agenda that included a $100 million package including funding for conservation and environmental restoration programs and creation of a state Office of Water Infrastructure.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.