Will lawmakers approve funding for widely supported water rights buyback program?

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
Irrigation pivots on February, 25, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A bill aimed at addressing one of Nevada’s most pressing issues — the overallocation of groundwater — remains stuck in a budget committee with less than two weeks left before the Legislature adjourns. Over the past week, environmental groups and other water users have pushed for Senate Democrats to support SB176 and move it through the process. 

Many parts of Nevada, the driest state in the nation, face a structural imbalance between water rights and supply. Across the state, in rivers, streams and aquifers, past state regulators issued more rights to use water than there was water to use, a problem known as over-appropriation. 

This issue is especially apparent in some groundwater basins, where the amount of water rights on paper far exceeds an amount that is sustainable, leading to environmental impacts and risks for communities — especially in rural Nevada — whose economies rely on stable and long-term groundwater supply. SB176, sponsored by Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka), aims to give state water officials another tool to deal with the problem: buying back water rights to reduce overuse.

The bill, a priority for the termed-out Goicoechea, would create the “Nevada Water Buy-Back Initiative” and an account to purchase and retire water rights. The idea is that by taking the groundwater rights off the books, the state will be able to better balance its water budgets, bringing water rights into balance with a sustainable amount of water.

“If we can start moving in the right direction, it’s better than just ignoring it and looking the other way, and that’s what we’ve kind of been doing over the last 40 years,” Goicoechea said in April. 

The legislation, he added, is a companion piece to another bill, SB113, which passed unanimously out of both houses and put more guardrails around groundwater management plans, locally backed programs that address groundwater overuse and provide an alternative to strict cuts from state regulators. 

Although the legislation initially called for $5 million in funding for the program, Goicoechea and supporters are now asking for about $250,000 to cover the annual costs of starting and administering the program. Once implemented, the program could accept federal funding, grants or donations. 

At a hearing in March, no one testified in opposition to the bill. 

A letter from environmental and progressive groups, organized by The Nature Conservancy, said that legislation “will provide another tool through a voluntary program for willing water right holders to retire their water rights so that they cannot be available for any use in the future.”

During the recent drought, neighboring states have set aside hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to address water scarcity and conservation, recognizing that the West could face a drier future.

“Utah appropriated $500 million for water conservation this year,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. “Here we are in Nevada fighting over couch-cushion money to do pretty serious groundwater management improvements.”

Editor’s Note: This story appears in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2023 legislative session. Sign up for the newsletter here.


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