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In effort to address drought, Dept. of Agriculture funds water conservation projects for farmers, ranchers

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
EnvironmentLocal Government

In Diamond Valley, where hundreds of pivoting sprinklers feed alfalfa fields every summer, water is king — and it’s under threat. Years of drought and a history of lax regulation has fueled uncertainty about how long some farmers and ranchers will be able to pump water from the ground.

“We are the poster-child for a declining water table,” said Ken Benson, who runs cattle and grows alfalfa at Haystax West, his operation in Diamond Valley, outside the town of Eureka.

The valley faces a problem common to many farmers and ranchers in Nevada. There are more rights to use water in Diamond Valley than there is water available to pump sustainably from the ground. In other words, Diamond Valley water users are pumping water at such a high rate that the water table is dropping to the point that it could endanger the long-term supply.

Coupled with recent droughts and increasingly arid conditions, which are likely to continue in the future, farmers face a potentially existential question: Will their families have access to the water they need to keep operating?

There are no silver-bullet fixes to this problem. But amid the debates over the issue, there is one solution that policymakers tend to agree on: conservation.

During the last legislative session, the Nevada Department of Agriculture received a $500,000 appropriation to fund conservation projects for farmers and ranchers across the state under a newly-established drought program.

Benson was one of the water users that applied for a project. For decades, he had used what he called a “rather outdated, leaky and inefficient” system to water an alfalfa field. Unlike many neighbors, his old system was less efficient than the center-pivot systems that create circular crop fields.

Benson’s grant application last fall was approved by the department, which incentivized Benson to upgrade to a more efficient center-pivot system. The state paid for the full cost of the project and within months, in time for the irrigation season that began in May, it was up and running.

“We were pretty pleased with it,” he said.

Under the funding, the Nevada Department of Agriculture has backed 11 conservation projects to decrease demands on streams, rivers and aquifers throughout the state.  The program is part of a larger effort to respond to the drought within the strict confines of Western water law. The idea for the program came out of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s drought response forum, a discussion among state leaders about how to manage drought proactively.

“That plan laid out a road to lead Nevada to drought resiliency,” said Tessa Rognier, an environmental scientist who oversees the grants.

Across the arid West, one impediment to conservation is often the cost of installing more efficient ditches or equipment. In this case, the grants from the department paid for the entire projects, with certain conditions. For instance, the grants could not be used to save water and in the process expand operations. The conserved water had to be left on the table, Rognier said.

“It couldn’t be for expanding your farm,” she said.

After this current growing season, beneficiaries of the projects will also be required to submit detailed reports by the end of the year. The reports will provide the department with information about whether the projects generally resulted in water savings or encouraged conservation practices.

The department is hoping for more funding if the first round of projects are successful, but they will likely have to wait another year because a second round of funding would require the Legislature’s approval.

Susan Kennedy, a rancher in Lamoille outside of Elko, received a $68,000 grant to move away from using flood irrigation off of Lamoille Creek, which rises from the Ruby Mountains. Flood irrigation, where water is delivered through a ditch and released in a field, is often criticized as inefficient.

The grant she received went toward replacing the irrigation system with a series of pumps and pipes that target the water to specific areas of her property, rather than using a series of ditches that often require more water — to provide enough pressure to transport the water — than her land needs.

She said that one engineer told her she was using 97 percent less water.

“It’s huge,” she said. “I didn’t believe the engineer when they told us we could get our fields wet for that little water… It works like a charm. It’s really been great.”

One reason Kennedy's water usage dropped so significantly is because she is now using a solar pump that operates only when the sun is shining. The grant included the solar pump, a type of pump that is much more cost-effective, Kennedy said, given the amount of electricity it takes to transport water.

There have been other benefits too.

Kennedy said that she can now tap into water she couldn’t previously tap into later in the season as the flows of Lamoille Creek became more shallow.

“It has functionally extended our irrigation system,” she said.

But across the West and even still in Nevada, conservation is not so simple. Western water law includes a doctrine known as “use it or lose it.” Under the rule, water users must use their entire water right or risk losing their valuable water allocation. The doctrine, created in the early days of settling the West, was meant to prevent speculation, but it also disincentives conservation.

Regulators and policymakers have been working on making a carve-out for conservation, especially during times of drought. In the last legislative session two bills were passed that begin to tackle this question. The Nevada Division of Water Resources, which regulates the state’s water rights, is still waiting for the Legislative Counsel Bureau to reconcile the legislation.

Kennedy said said that she was motivated to apply for the grant because it’s important to ease the pressure on water resources. And she added that water users should not be penalized for conserving water during a drought.

“My ranch is built around sustainability,” she said. “If I can do what I need to do using fewer resources and maintaining healthier pastures, that kind of fits in with how I run my place.”

Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the Nevada Division of Water Resources as a department. It is a division.


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