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Nevada State Engineer Issues Order to Curb New Domestic Wells in Pahrump Basin

As the most arid state in the nation, Nevada has always faced challenges when managing its valuable water resources, and the Pahrump Artesian Basin is no exception. On December 19, 2017, Nevada State Engineer issued an unprecedented order (Order No. 1293 or the Order), prohibiting the drilling of new domestic wells in the Pahrump Artesian Basin in hopes of slowing the decline of the overtaxed groundwater supply. Pursuant to Chapter 534 of the Nevada Revised Statues, when the State Engineer determines that a groundwater basin is being depleted:

. . .the State Engineer in his or her administrative capacity may make such rules, regulations and orders as are deemed essential for the welfare of the area involved. Nev. Rev. Stat. § 534.120.

 

Background

It is estimated that the perennial yield of the Pahrump Artesian Basin, or the maximum amount that can be withdrawn to still allow the basin to recharge, is 20,000 acre-feet annually. However, the State Engineer estimates that the amount of water from committed rights (amounts of water provided under Permits and Certificates issued by Nevada Division of Water Resources) accounts for approximately 59,175 acre-feet of annual withdrawals from the basin. This figure does not account for water withdrawn from “domestic wells” because domestic wells are not subject to permit requirements. Per Nevada Revised Statues §§ 534.013 and 534.180, a “domestic well” is a well used for culinary and household purposes directly related to a single-family dwelling, including without limitation, the watering of a family garden and lawn and the watering of livestock and any other domestic animals or household pets, so long as the amount of water drawn does not exceed 2 acre-feet per year. An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover one acre with a foot of water and is enough water to supply two average Las Vegas Valley homes for a little more than a year.

In Pahrump Valley, there are approximately 11,280 domestic wells, the highest density in the state. Accordingly, in the Pahrump Artesian Basin, the existing domestic wells could withdraw 22,560 acre-feet of water alone, exceeding the perennial yield of the basin. The Order states that in some areas of the basin, there are as many as 469 wells per square mile. Despite the proliferation in wells, the State Engineer estimates that an additional 8,000 new domestic wells could be drilled in the basin.

Historical water level data maintained by the State Engineer and other agencies show a steady decline in the water levels on the valley floor since the 1950s.

 

New Requirements for Domestic Wells

The Order prohibits the drilling of any new domestic well, unless a user can obtain and relinquish to the State an existing permitted right to cover the 2.0 acre-feet per year to serve the new domestic well. The order does not apply to the rehabilitation or redrilling of existing domestic wells. By limiting new domestic wells and requiring the relinquishment of existing permitted rights, Nevada hopes to protect the continued supply of groundwater within the basin, including for existing domestic wells.

The Nye County water district requested the move to help bring Pahrump’s water disparity under control until broader conservation measures and other management strategies can be implemented.

 

Conclusion and Implications

Since most surface waters in Nevada are allocated by a federal, state, or civil decree, or water rights permits, determining the availability and sustainability of groundwater supplies has become an important issue. With this new Order, property owners wanting to drill new domestic wells will now be required to obtain water rights on the property. This Order will likely result in a higher premium in the sale of water rights between owners.

None of Nevada’s more than 230 hydrographic groundwater basins has ever been placed on curtailment that would affect domestic wells. Water management in Nevada is no easy task and the host of challenges facing the Pahrump Artesian Basin are not easy to solve. However, the Nevada State Engineer appears to be facing these challenges head on by issuing this new Order.

(Wesley A. Miliband, Eric R. Skanchy)