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Nevada Supreme Court ruling shakes up groundwater rights

supreme court
The Supreme Court of Nevada's main courthouse in Carson City, Nevada.

A Nevada Supreme Court ruling on Thursday has set new precedent for how the state can manage groundwater in areas with severe drought.

In a 4-3 ruling issued Thursday to settle a water dispute in Diamond Valley, a rural Eureka County farm area, the court said groundwater management plans established in areas that are losing groundwater supply quickly can deviate from the longstanding senior water rights doctrine.

Nevada’s top water official, the state engineer, has authority to regulate water in the Diamond Valley area of Eureka County under a groundwater management plan approved by local farmers and water users even if the plan deviates from existing state water law, the state high court said.

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In reversing a decision by a Eureka County District Court judge, the justices ruled that in some cases, water-use plans can deviate from longstanding “priority doctrine,” which gives premium rights to senior water users who’ve owned their land the longest.

The West is experiencing a more than 20-year megadrought. Scientists say the region has become much warmer and drier in recent decades and that climate change will continue to make weather more extreme, wildfires more frequent and destructive, and water supplies less reliable.

In the agricultural Diamond Valley, severe drought and decades of water overuse have led to battles over a groundwater supply depleted because it is unable to recharge naturally.

As a result, it has been designated a Critical Management Area, the only area in the state carrying such a designation.

Because the goal of the groundwater management plan is to erase the area’s “critical” status, the court said the state engineer can take action in ways that deviate from the “priority doctrine,” the court said.

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The deviations are allowed only if the plan has been approved by both the engineer and a majority of water-users within the critically designated area, the court said. It called the management plan approved in Diamond Valley a community-based solution to long-term water shortages in the valley.

“We recognize that our opinion will significantly affect water management in Nevada,” Justice James Hardesty wrote for the majority. The court ruling was first reported by the Nevada Independent.

“We are of the belief, however, that — given the arid nature of this State — it is particularly important that we effectuate the plain meaning of a statute that encourages the sustainable use of water,” Hardesty wrote.

Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said the ruling underscored ongoing tension over water use in the West, where doctrines long have separated junior and senior holders of water rights.

“This ruling puts a magnifying glass on that tension,” Roerink said.

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It comes as farmers in many parts of the state are refiguring which and how many crops they can grow amid drought and rising costs due to inflation.

“We’re risking a lot more when we go and put in a seed in the ground than we were last year,” said Eric Hull, general manager of Winnemucca Farms, a Humboldt County operation that he called the largest irrigated farm in the state. “And in a tougher environment with a lot less water,” he added.