Another water war

Assemblymember Sheila Leslie, right, greets visitors at the Legislature. Critics say her bill to implement a voter-approved county water measure does not need to also be

Last year, after being rebuffed by the Washoe County Commission, citizens organized an initiative petition drive to force local governments to keep growth and available water in balance.

The question they placed on the ballot read, “Shall the Truckee Meadows Regional Plan be amended to reflect and to include a policy or policies requiring that local government land use plans be based upon and in balance with identified and sustainable water resources available within Washoe County?” It was called ballot measure WC-3.

Voters approved the measure with a 73 percent landslide. Suddenly, the balance of power on one Washoe growth issue shifted.

In the weeks after the election, there were murmurs from local officialdom and developers that existing law and the master plan already required what the ballot measure sought. That seemed to indicate a certain faintheartedness by developer-friendly local governments to change the way they did things.

A plan by Washoe Assembly-member Sheila Leslie to seek a state law that embodies WC-3 became a remedy supported by the measure’s backers to protect their victory.

“For the last two or three campaign cycles as I’ve gone door to door … the No. 1 issue in my district is water,” Leslie told an Assembly Government Affairs Committee hearing on the bill Monday morning.

She said that, for a long time, she told voters that water is basically a local issue and referred them to their local officials. But in campaign after campaign they kept asking about the issue, “Republican, nonpartisan, Democrat,” with the result that she concluded that “they felt that the legislature did have a stake” in water law.

Leslie represents Assembly District 27, an older portion of the city that contains numerous long-time residents and natives, voters normally skeptical of controlled growth measures.

She said that after the petitioners were rejected by the County Commission when they sought a similar county ordinance, they decided to “follow the only process that they felt was open to them”—an initiative petition. About a fourth of the registered voters in the county signed the petition and three-fourths of those voting supported it.

Representatives of local government were “angry with me” for planning the bill, she said, so she met with officials in various local governments and the Truckee Meadows Water Authority to reach agreement on the matter. The first version of her legislation, now designated Assembly Bill 119, leaked before she could get an agreement among the parties, and that leaked version freaked out business and local governments. Developers said it went beyond the language of the ballot measure and that it would stall development.

Others said it duplicated what the county government already did, but Leslie gave that argument short shrift. “The argument that we already do this does not resonate with me, does not resonate with the people I deal with.”

Prep work

It took time to work out the disagreements among the local governments, but by the time of Monday’s hearing, the job was done.

Then, “Over the weekend we became aware of some concerns the state water engineer has,” said Leslie.

Acting state water engineer Jason King testified, “The state engineer’s office cannot support this bill as currently written.” He said it “usurps our authority” in determining water availability figures. He offered language to be amended into the Leslie bill and said that would satisfy his concern without stopping the bill.

A line of local government and community leaders gave testimony in support of the Leslie measure. Among those represented were the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, Washoe County Commission, Reno and Sparks city councils, and the Western Regional Water Commission, a little-known body created by the legislature two years ago.

One of the most important statements of support for the Leslie measure came from Steve Bradhurst, well known in government circles as one of the most experienced and influential public administrators in the state. He headed the state program to stop the MX missile system’s construction in Nevada in the 1970s and ’80s, is a former Washoe County commissioner, former director of the Washoe County Department of Water Resources, former director of the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority and a consultant to several rural counties. His mere presence lent heft to the legislation.

Bradhurst said efforts to reach an agreement among local governments focused on language “with the intent [that] it was equal to WC-3, no more, no less. … The focus was on making sure that it implements WC-3 and not go further.” On the other hand, he was untroubled by the notion of having WC-3’s intent reinforced in more than one place, calling it akin to “wearing suspenders and a belt.”

In response to Assembly Local Government Committee chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick, Bradhurst said one purpose of WC-3 is to make it clear that water found in Washoe and water imported are treated differently in inventorying available water. “If a local entity or individual is successful in getting water from a rural locale, that isn’t Washoe water, so that when planners sit down, they are using realistic water figures.”

Washoe High School senior Brittany Berger testified, “Water is like money to me. … You can’t spend more than you have. This could be a balance between development and water planning.”

Opposition

Greg Peek of ERGS Properties led off the opposition to the measure with objections to a state law. “Government is best when it governs close to the people,” he said. “It [WC-3] was passed just in November, and we really haven’t had a chance locally to work through it.” He said Leslie’s bill goes beyond WC-3 because the voters supported a measure which mentions adding language only to “the regional plan, not the revised statutes.” (State law is compiled in Nevada Revised Statutes.)

“This is unneeded legislation; it is already in the statutes. … We’re going beyond what WC-3 calls for. … We’re already doing it.”

Peek read a section of the state law on the regional planning process used in Washoe County to demonstrate that local governments already must follow the procedure mandated in WC-3.

“The concerns have been, our growth outstrips our water supply,” Peek said, adding that “actual growth cannot outstrip water supply” because of existing law. “Every developer must bring water.”

Opponent Randy Walter represented a civil engineering firm, Places Consulting, that specializes in large scale development. He attacked the language used in local planning. “I know a little bit about planner jargon,” he said, citing terms like sustainable water resources—“What does that mean?”—and development pattern—“What does that mean? Who defines it?”

He said the “undefined terms” are “loosely understood,” which makes it possible for county planners to do whatever they want.

Walker said if WC-3 required the master plan to “require proof of the availability of water,” it would be a “deal killer,” stopping developments from ever coming to pass.

Kirkpatrick, a former Clark County planning commission member, interjected a question: “Why is it a deal killer? … Don’t you kind of want to know if you’ve got those water rights?”

Peek responded that it matters at what point developers must provide the water. “I just obtained a special use permit for 420 apartments I would not have been able to do that if I had to bring water for 420 units … up front.”

Peek also complained that there was a dialogue going in Washoe County among local officials and developers after the enactment of WC-3, but Leslie’s bill stopped it in its tracks: “When A.B. 119 was introduced, all that discussion went away.”

Builders Association of Northern Nevada lobbyist Jay Parmer raised another issue—“The local governments affected by this legislation have submitted fiscal notes in the amount of 1.6 million.” He claimed that would make the legislation an unfunded mandate.

Tray Abney of the Reno Chamber of Commerce said, “Now, more than ever, it’s important that we encourage business growth in our community. … Let’s make sure that we can still create jobs.”

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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.