After a state water ruling prompted a lawsuit from Pahrump residents and became a key issue in a highly charged Assembly race, the state’s top water regulator has decided to rein in the ruling designed to limit the development of new domestic wells. The issue has long plagued the town, 55 miles outside of Las Vegas, which taps into a limited supply of underground water.
In December, State Engineer Jason King placed strict regulations on the construction of new domestic wells that tap into Pahrump’s aquifer, where there are more rights to water than the amount of runoff that flows into the groundwater basin, according to the state’s hydrologists.
Nevada residents, per statute, are allowed to build domestic wells if they can’t connect to a utility. From there, they can pump a maximum of two acre-feet, the unit used to describe the amount of water that can fill one acre of land with one foot of water. As Pahrump’s population increased, thousands of wells were built, placing more strain on the basin, the state engineer had argued. The December order prohibited new domestic well owners from drilling unless they purchased two acre-feet from another water users to offset the amount they could be pumping.
Among the most controversial aspect of the order was that it applied to 21 water users already planning to drill water and those with building permits. Residents who had been planning to build or add a domestic well worried they all of the sudden needed to purchase water rights.
Last week, King, Nevada’s top groundwater regulator, amended his original ruling to allow the construction of more than 20 new wells that were planned or pending when the order came out.
“The amendments to the order respect the good faith efforts, plans and projects already in the works when Order 1293 was issued,” said JoAnn Kittrell, a spokesperson for the state engineer.
But the issue is likely far from over.
Shortly after the original order was released, a group of well-owners organized under Pahrump Fair Water LLC quickly sued the state engineer. That lawsuit continues, and their lawyer David Rigdon said they have asked the judge for a status conference to discuss how the amendments affect the case. Rigdon, in an interview Monday afternoon, said there are disagreements about the effect among some of the parties but that many of the issues remain ripe for a legal opinion.
“We have requested an emergency status conference with the judge,” he said.
The group’s complaint argued that the state engineer did not have jurisdiction to halt domestic well construction, did not properly notice those affected and does not have enough evidence to support why the ruling was warranted. Rigdon also suggested that there is Nevada precedent that the amendment might not be allowed as the original order makes its way through the court.
In Pahrump, the issue of water and drilling domestic wells remains a sensitive topic. During the primary election, water rights emerged as a key issue, even in a race dominated by sex and brothels. Brothel owner Dennis Hof, who won his primary, put up billboards that said he would “fight hard for our water” and criticized his opponent, Assemblyman James Oscarson, for not doing enough. Oscarson pushed back on that claim, criticizing the state engineer for the order and putting up a billboard of his own that read: “Fighting for your water rights!”
Norma Jean Opatik, a real estate agent who leads Pahrump Fair Water LLC, said with the amendment, “all they did was put a band-aid on the gaping wound.” She said the group plans to continue its fight against the order.
Pahrump Fair Water LLC had also placed pressure on Attorney General Adam Laxalt, the Republican candidate for governor, because his office was defending the state engineer in their suit. Laxalt’s office pushed back on the criticism with a statement to The Nevada Independent in March.
“The office of the Nevada Attorney General is statutorily required to represent the state engineer and defend the policy decision in Order 1293. While litigation is pending, the attorney general cannot comment on the litigation or share his personal views about that policy decision,” Monica Moazez, the spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, wrote in an email.
The order came after the state engineer had tried to fix the domestic well issue through a statute change. That path proved equally controversial and a potential legislative fix was dropped. Others have pushed more conservation and removing water-intensive invasive species.