Briefing in Pahrump water order appeal filings complete

The briefing in the appeal case regarding Nevada State Engineer Order #1293(A) has reached its conclusion.

The documents for all parties involved are now undergoing the process of screening by the Nevada Supreme Court, which will decide whether or not to move the case forward and hold a hearing to allow for oral arguments.

In addition to the Nevada State Engineer’s Office, which is the appellant, and Pahrump Fair Water, the respondent, a third party has joined the battle as well. The Nevada Groundwater Association requested leave to file an amicus brief, taking the side of Pahrump Fair Water in the argument, and the Nevada Supreme Court has granted that request.

The water order has been the source of much contention since it was originally issued in December 2017.

The order restricts the drilling of new domestic wells in the Pahrump Valley unless two acre-feet of water rights have been relinquished in support of the well. For some Pahrump property owners, water rights were already relinquished when their parcels were initially created. However, for many others, this is not the case and the order requires these property owners to first purchase water rights and relinquish them back to the state before they can drill a domestic well on their land.

Pahrump Fair Water, an organization composed of local property owners, well drillers and real estate agents, filed suit to put a stop to the water order. After several months of legal maneuvering, a judge with the Fifth Judicial District Court rendered a ruling in November 2018 in favor of Pahrump Fair Water and overturned the water order.

That was far from the end of the matter, however, as the Nevada State Engineer’s Office took its opportunity to file an appeal, which is the case now before the Nevada Supreme Court. While the case is being considered, the Supreme Court has issued a stay on the ruling that overturned the water order, meaning at the moment, the order is still in effect.

The basic argument between the engineer’s office and Pahrump Fair Water stems from the question of just how far the state engineer’s authority extends when it comes to domestic wells.

Pahrump Fair Water asserts that the engineer does not have the power to regulate domestic wells except in very specific circumstances, which the organization argues do not exist in the given situation. The state engineer, conversely, proclaims that the engineer’s office can, in fact, restrict domestic wells and withdrawals from such if the engineer finds that it would be in the best interest of the health of the overall water basin to do so.

There are several other points argued by both sides in the briefs filed in the case, including those regarding due process requirements and whether potential new domestic wells constitute a vested property right or protectable interest.

Now the case has reached a “wait and see” point, as there is no definite schedule for when the Nevada Supreme Court might decide to hold a hearing in the matter.

“There is really no way to tell,” David Rigdon of Taggart and Taggart, LTD, the law firm representing Pahrump Fair Water, stated when asked about a possible time line for the case. “I’ve seen the screening process take as few as 45 days and as long as seven to eight months. It all depends on their workload. In the order approving the stay, the court stated that they wanted expedited briefing… However it’s not clear whether the court will expedite its screening and review.”

The appeal is filed under Case No. 77722. All associated documents can be reviewed online at www.nvcourts.gov

 

Contact reporter Robin Hebrock at rhebrock@pvtimes.com

Call to action on AB 95

The Nevada Legislative Session is has just three weeks remaining until it comes to a close and the fate of hundreds of bills depends upon the decisions made in these final days.

In a email sent out May 14 to area residents with a deep interest in local water resources, Nevada Assemblyman Greg Hafen II urged the community to reach out to Nevada Senators and ask them to vote “no” on one particular bill, Assembly Bill 95.

The bill calls for changes to Nevada water law that many have been pushing back against. It would require the Nevada State Engineer, “…to continue to allow withdrawals of groundwater from domestic wells under certain circumstances in groundwater basins where withdrawals have been restricted to conform to priority rights,” according to the bill language.

The bill dictates that domestic wells would be allowed to continue pumping half an acre foot of water it times of curtailment but only if the owner installs a water meter. The idea of water meters is something Pahrump residents have been extremely resistant to for years. Many have also argued that the state engineer does not have the authority to curtail domestic wells at all, a belief that is current under debate in a lawsuit between the engineer’s office and Pahrump Fair Water.

A bill very similar to Assembly Bill 95 was before the Nevada Legislature in 2017 and after the public outcry, it ultimately failed to pass.

“I rise today in opposition to Assembly Bill 95. Assembly Bill 95 tramples over 100 years of Nevada water laws to the detriment of all water users,” Hafen stated from the Assembly Floor on May 14. “We heard from many Nevadans during the bill’s hearing about the negative effects of the bill. There was not one person or organization in support.”

“Currently, domestic wells in my district are already only using an average of half an acre foot per year,” Hafen continued. “Conservation is the key to solving Nevada’s water issues and this bill does nothing to promote conservation, but does have a financial burden to well owners by requiring them install a meter. I urge my colleagues to vote ‘no’ on Assembly Bill 95.”

Details on the bill and a list of all Nevada Legislators along with their contact information can be found online at www.leg.state.nv.us

— Robin Hebrock, Pahrump Valley Times

Source: Briefing in Pahrump water order appeal complete


WESTERN WATER: Judge on landowners’ plight: ‘I won’t say the word “screwed”‘

Ellen M. Gilmer, E&E News reporter

There, government lawyers urged the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to toss a lawsuit from Nevada landowners who say a federal restoration project stole their water and flooded their land.

At issue is Patch of Heaven, a Christian camp on private land nestled within the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.

The Nevada church Ministerio Roca Solida bought the 40-acre site in 2006 for $500,000. At the time, a stream called the Carson Slough flowed across the property, feeding plants and a small pond and sometimes serving as a site for baptisms.

In 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages all of the surrounding land, rerouted the channel in a restoration project to help the Ash Meadows speckled dace, an endangered fish that lives in the area’s warm springs.

Annette and Victor Fuentes, who own Ministerio Roca Solida, say the government owes them compensation for eliminating the stream from their property — except for a trickle of water the site claimed through a state permit — and rerouting it in a way that causes repeated flooding on another part of the parcel.

The couple teamed up with the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation and attracted the support of Westerners opposed to federal land management, including the Bundy ranching family infamous for its conflicts with government agencies.

Speaking at a boisterous rally at Patch of Heaven last year, Ryan Bundy offered to demolish the FWS project himself (Greenwire, April 23, 2018).

The mood was decidedly tamer during yesterday’s hearing, where just five spectators — including one reporter and one court employee — listened to more than two hours of technical arguments involving property rights, water law and hydrology.

Judge Elaine Kaplan must decide whether to grant the government’s motion for summary judgment rather than allowing the case to proceed to trial.

The church’s claims are twofold: that the government’s elimination of streamflow on the land without payment amounted to an unconstitutional taking of vested water rights, and that the diversion project’s contribution to flooding was also a taking.

Justice Department lawyers yesterday disputed both claims. The government contends the landowners are not entitled to the water rights they claim, and, in any case, that issue should be adjudicated by the state of Nevada, not the Federal Claims court.

The two lawyers from DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division also attempted to poke holes in the Fuenteses’ flooding claims, dismissing the plaintiffs’ expert testimony as unsubstantiated and noting that the broader area is prone to flooding.

“Plaintiffs would like this court to believe … that there was never flooding on that part of the property,” DOJ attorney Davené Walker said, adding that the area is part of a flood zone and has a well-documented history of such events.

Walker explained that to win a takings claim against the government for flooding, the plaintiff must show that FWS caused the flooding and intended or expected it to happen. Ministerio Roca Solida has offered no evidence to support either prong, she said.

Mountain States Legal Foundation lawyer Zhonette Brown, in turn, questioned the evidence presented by the government.

Kaplan, an Obama appointee, agreed with the government that Ministerio Roca Solida’s expert testimony appeared “a little thin,” but she questioned whether it would be appropriate to resolve the case in favor of the United States at this stage, without allowing the church to make its case at trial.

She also empathized with the Fuenteses on their loss of the stream, regardless of whether FWS’s project was lawful.

“I won’t say the word ‘screwed,'” she said of the landowners, eventually landing on the word “injured.”

The judge added that she’s never heard a water rights case or a flooding case before and will need some time to consider the competing evidence.

“Your Honor’s more than welcome to come out to the property,” Brown said, “so you can make your own conclusion.”

Dried-up baptimisal pool. Photo credit: Jennifer Yachnin/E&E News
The former baptismal pool at the Patch of Heaven camp in Amargosa Valley, Nev. A “legal evidence” sign refers to the camp’s owners’ lawsuit with the Fish and Wildlife Service over diverted streams and flooding. Jennifer Yachnin/E&E News

Source


Supreme Court Moves to Overturn Conviction of Joe Robertson, Fined and Jailed for Digging Ponds on his Rural Montana Property

 

SCOTUS overturned decision upholding Robertson’s conviction and remanded the case so that the indictment could be dismissed and the lien cancelled

(Washington, DC) – Judicial Watch announced today that the Supreme Court of the United States has overturned a lower court decision affirming the conviction of Joseph Robertson, a 78-year-old veteran now deceased who was sentenced to prison for digging ditches on his rural Montana property to protect the area surrounding his home from wildfires. Judicial Watch had filed an amicus curiae brief jointly with the Allied Educational Foundation supporting Robertson and urging Supreme Court review and reversal of the lower court decision. Robertson served 18 months in prison and died while serving probation. He was also fined $130,000, a liability inherited by his estate.

The Supreme Court also remanded Robertson’s conviction to the lower court so the indictment can be dismissed and the lien can be cancelled.

Judicial Watch and the AEF had asked the Supreme Court to review the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that upheld Robertson’s conviction, because that decision “affirmed illegal agency actions in prosecuting Joseph Robertson based on a misreading of federal law. The Court should take this opportunity to correct the confusion in overbroad interpretations of the Clear Water Act, which have led to unjust prosecutions and federal intrusions into both state authority and individual liberty.”

The brief was filed in the case of Robertson v. United States, Case No. 18-609, 587 U.S. __ (2019). This was an appeal of the Ninth Circuit decision in United States v. Robertson, 875 F.3d 1281, 1285 (9th Cir. 2017).

Judicial Watch asserted in its filing that the ditches Robertson dug “sat on what a federal agency defines as wetlands and were situated on or near a small downhill water flow of about three garden hoses in volume.  Mr. Robertson was not engaged in manufacturing or any other industrial activity which would release chemicals or waste into the water, but under the federal Clean Water Act even turning the soil with a shovel can be considered to be releasing a ‘pollutant’ into water.”

In their brief, JW and the AEF suggest that the issue is larger than Robertson’s personal plight, that it also involves the separation of powers among Congress, the Executive Branch and the Supreme Court.

Judicial Watch and AEF also note that the Supreme Court itself has introduced confusion into the issue of “adjacent wetlands,” “point source,” and “navigable waters.

Also, matters like those involving Robertson properly belong with the state, not the federal government.

The brief argues that the Congress has been all too willing to forego its Constitutional duty and defer to federal agencies.

[It was not foreseen that] the judiciary could eventually aid and abet the complete sacrificing of power by one of those two branches, effectively leaving a one-branch government where the founders intended three. When the Court goes too far in reading statutes as broadly assigning sweeping interpretative power to agencies, this allows Congress to give up power altogether and to stop the necessary work of revising and repealing statutes. Congress has proven itself either willing to give up those powers or unable to stop itself from doing so, preferring to ask the executive branch to reinterpret or reimagine statutes in ever more creative ways while sparing members of Congress the pain of accountability for national policy. The Court should not countenance this upending of the constitutional order.

“The Supreme Court has granted a victory against an overreaching government bureaucracy,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said. “The government should not be allowed to regulate every drop of water in America, and the Supreme Court was right to brush back the radical bureaucrats. Mr. Robertson, a veteran, died before he was vindicated but his fight has protected the constitutional freedoms of other Americans.”

The Allied Educational Foundation is a charitable and educational foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life through education.  In furtherance of that goal, the Foundation has engaged in a number of projects, which include, but are not limited to, educational and health conferences domestically and abroad. AEF has partnered frequently with Judicial Watch to fight government and judicial corruption and to promote a return to ethics and morality in the nation’s public life.

Source: Supreme Court Moves to Overturn Conviction of Joe Robertson, Fined and Jailed for Digging Ponds on his Rural Montana Property


Editorial: No need for murky water law changes

 

Two bills proposing to alter water use policy are pending in the Nevada Legislature. They are at best problematic.

Assembly Bill 30 appears to give the state engineer greater leeway in the use of monitoring, management and mitigations — known in the jargon as 3M — to resolve conflicts in water rights. The language is rather vague and subject to interpretation.

Assembly Bill 51 appears to give the state engineer more flexibility in what is called conjunctive management of water. While current law treats surface water and groundwater as interchangeable in a basin in the scheme of allocations, AB51 tells the state engineer to adopt regulations that mitigate conflicts between the two water sources.

Nevada water law is based on the concept of prior authorization, in other words the first one to use a water resource has priority or senior water rights. Those who come later, if there is enough water available, have junior rights that must yield to the senior rights if supply becomes inadequate for any reason.

The Great Basin Water Network, an organization that has been fighting attempts for years by the Las Vegas Valley water provider to tap groundwater in eastern Nevada basins, suspects these two bills are intended to give the state engineer the flexibility needed to allow the project to reach fruition.

GBWN says the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s $15 billion groundwater importation plan would pump 58 billion gallons of groundwater annually in a 300-mile pipeline to Las Vegas. They say the Bureau of Land Management has estimated the project would irreparably harm 305 springs, 112 miles of streams, 8,000 acres of wetlands, and 191,000 acres of shrub land habitat.

A federal judge has so far blocked the water grab from Spring, Cave, Dry Lake and Delamar valleys, saying the state engineer failed to establish any objective criteria for when mitigation — such as halting pumping — would have to be initiated. The engineer plans to appeal that ruling, but a change in state law could moot that.

GBWN questions the effectiveness of the two bills’ calls for monetary compensation and water replacement to make whole senior water rights owners.

Abby Johnson, GBWN’s president, says in an op-ed she has penned for area newspapers, “From ranchers to environmentalists, there is a consensus that we don’t need to fix what isn’t broken. Nevada water law has served Nevadans well for more than 100 years and continues to serve the public interest. That success, however, has stymied a select few.”

The select few, Johnson says, include real estate developers and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which has “not had much luck in recent years getting what they want under the current legal and regulatory framework. Why? Because what they want is to facilitate unsustainable over-pumping of the state’s fragile, limited groundwater resources.”

She adds, “ The problem –– for all of us –– is that they want water that either doesn’t exist or already belongs to someone else.”

Johnson further charges that the change in law would grant the state engineer “czar-like powers to unilaterally choose winners and losers without regard to senior water rights holders’ existing property rights … which would mire Nevada water rights owners and the state government in complex and unpredictable litigation for years.”

Assemblyman John Ellison of Elko released a statement saying the bills would constitute an unconstitutional “taking” of water rights and said a recent hearing saw a consensus of opposition from industry, ranchers and farmers and not one person testifying in support of either bill.

“We cannot allow an unelected bureaucrat to wield this much power over one of our state’s most precious resources. I’m reminded of the famous Mark Twain quote, ‘Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.’” Ellison said. “I will never stop fighting for the rights of senior property rights owners in my district and throughout Nevada.”

Though Twain probably never said that, it sounds like something he would say and is apropos to the current situation. AB 30 and AB51 need to be sent down the drain.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Source: Editorial: No need for murky water law changes


Opening brief filed on Pahrump water order appeal

Special to the Pahrump Valley Times Acting Nevada State Engineer Tim Wilson took over the office after former state engineer Jason King resigned early this year.

The Nevada State Engineer’s Office has filed its opening brief in its appeal over water Order #1293A, which was overturned by a district court judge late last year.

In its brief, the engineer’s office, now under the leadership of Acting State Engineer Tim Wilson, argues that the findings of the district court judge were made in error and pleads with the Nevada Supreme Court to reverse the district court’s ruling. Wilson took over for former state engineer Jason King in January.

Water Order #1293 was issued in Dec. 2017 and was followed six months later by amended Order #1293A. The order restricts the drilling of new domestic wells in Pahrump unless two acre-feet of water rights have been relinquished in support of the well.

A group of local real estate agents, property owners and well drilling companies quickly formed Pahrump Fair Water LLC to fight the order, filing a lawsuit in which the group prevailed in December 2018.

Now the battle has moved to the Nevada Supreme Court and while the appeal moves through the legal process, the supreme court has issued a stay on the district court’s ruling. This means that Order #1293A is currently in effect and will remain in effect until the court makes its ultimate decision on the appeal.

“This appeal arises from the district court’s Dec. 6, 2018 order granting Pahrump Fair Water’s petition for judicial review, whereby the district court found that the state engineer exceeded his statutory authority in issuing amended Order #1293A, the state engineer should have provided notice to property owners prior to issuing amended Order #1293A, substantial evidence does not support amended Order #1293A and that Pahrump Fair Water, LLC had the requisite standing to challenge amended Order #1293A,” the state engineer’s opening brief details.

Throughout the 66-page document, the engineer’s office attempts to refute each of these findings of the district court, stating that it believes the engineer had full authority to issue the water order under existing Nevada law.

Citing a declining water table and an over-appropriated basin with the potential for nearly 100,000 acre feet of water use annually, the office claims that without the order in place, significant damage to local water resources could occur.

Further, the engineer’s office declared that if the Nevada Supreme Court does not reverse the district court’s ruling, then the engineer’s office will be placed in the precarious position of not knowing what control it can exert over domestic wells.

“Without amended Order #1293A the state engineer’s only option for addressing groundwater problems in Pahrump will be to regulate, or curtail, by priority, whereby any new domestic wells would be the first water use restricted,” the brief reads. “However, the district court’s findings even call into questions that legal directive and authority of the state engineer. If this court does not reverse the district court’s findings, the statutory authority of the state engineer to regulate domestic wells by priority is uncertain.”

In conclusion, the brief states, “Prior to issuance of amended Order #1293A, domestic wells represented the last unaccounted groundwater use in the Pahrump Basin, and yet water levels continued to drop, threatening thousands of existing wells. Amended Order #1293A is necessary to protect the existing water users in the Pahrump Basin and is a necessary component to the overall long-term management of the groundwater basin.

“Absent authority to intervene and manage the water resources, the state engineer may be required to curtail by priority, resulting in all new domestic wells being the junior most rights and the first to be curtailed,” the conclusion continued. “Allowing unrestri

Robin Hebrock/Pahrump Valley Times Pictured are pages from the Nevada State Engineer’s opening brief for its appeal in the case of water Order #1293A.

cted proliferation of new domestic wells in this context represents poor management of the groundwater resource and would have dire consequences.” 

Pahrump Fair Water now has until March 21 to file its answering brief.

Documents related to the appeal, including the opening brief, can be found on the Nevada Supreme Court’s website under case number 77722.

Source: Opening brief filed on Pahrump water order appeal