A desert state axes water planning

The Nevada Division of Water Planning meets an untimely demise


For the second time in 20 years, the nation's driest and fastest-growing state has abolished its Division of Water Planning. Mike Turnipseed, the new chief of Nevada's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, dismantled the water-planning agency and dismissed its director within weeks of his appointment.

Turnipseed says his decision complies with Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn's instructions to streamline government, and he points out that it will save taxpayers around $500,000. But the speed of his actions and their implications for Nevada's future have stunned almost everyone involved in water planning across the state.

"It's not the way I would have handled it," says Democratic state Assemblyman and Speaker of the House Joe Dini, who's known as Nevada's father of water planning.

Bob Fulkerson, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, was more candid.

"The elimination of the Division of Water Planning is a sign of gross mismanagement at the highest levels of state government," he says.

"Planning is communistic"

The water-planning division had been under the direction of Naomi Duerr since 1993. Its mission is to plan for water use throughout Nevada, where annual average precipitation is less than 10 inches.

Last year, Duerr and her staff completed the first revision of the state water plan in 25 years. The plan tied water use to population growth, which is estimated to increase 93 percent within 20 years. The plan also projected future demands on water from mushrooming cities and from increased public interest in supplying the needs of wildlife. It outlined future sources, including conservation and reclamation of gray water in a state where virtually all surface and groundwater supplies are already appropriated.

The revised water plan won a standing ovation from the Nevada Legislature, and it was honored by the National Conference of State Legislatures as the most notable document of the year 2000.

But the report and some of its 72 recommendations rankled Nevada cattlemen, miners and rural officials. It revealed that state-issued permits for groundwater exceed - by as much as four times - the amount of water that naturally flows back into the water table. And the plan foresaw a 7 percent decline in agricultural water use as ranchers sold their historic water rights at high prices for municipal uses.

The information in the report, and its emphasis on careful planning on a regional and statewide basis, stepped on too many toes, says Tom Myers, director of Great Basin Mine Watch.

"Planning is communistic to some of our rural legislators," he says. "I'm skeptical that the water plan will ever be implemented."

Demolishing the agency jeopardizes more than comprehensive water planning, Fulkerson says. It threatens Walker Lake, a high desert lake at risk from reduced flows (HCN, 9/13/99: Troubled Oasis). Duerr brought together diverse groups that were resolving such difficult issues as insufficient water supplies and litigation. The demise of the water planning division also endangers a state water education program, funded by $395,000 in federal grants, and a 400,000-volume library and on-line database, which made information available to anyone interested in water issues. "We live in the driest and fastest-growing state in the union," says Fulkerson. "If we, as residents, don't work to protect our future, who will?"


In September, around 30 people staged a mock funeral to symbolize the death of statewide water planning. They marched from the Legislature building to the state Capitol with a casket in the shape of Nevada. Inside the casket were a copy of the state water plan, a cloth replica of a Lahontan cutthroat trout, a photograph of Walker Lake and bouquets of several native plants. All are threatened by a lack of water planning, says Kaitlin Backlund, executive director of Citizen Alert, a Nevada-based nuclear watchdog group.

Turnipseed, who was the state engineer and issued water permits before his promotion in July, insists that water planning will not come to a halt with elimination of the agency. Although the six water-planning positions have been reduced to one, the division's five remaining staff members will continue to work under the jurisdiction of other agencies, he says. Turnipseed will replace Duerr as head of the Walker Lake team. State efforts to save the lake will diminish but will not cease, he says.

"The people of Nevada will be better served by redistributing these services," says Jack Finn, a spokesman for Gov. Guinn.

Joe Dini, who has served in the state Assembly longer than anyone in Nevada history, plans to challenge Turnipseed's decision when the Legislature convenes in February. He wrote legislation in 1968 creating the state's first water-planning agency. After the Legislature abolished the division in 1981, he wrote the 1989 legislation that recreated it.

"I put Nevada water planning together twice," Dini says. "I guess I have to try a third time."

Jane Braxton Little writes from Plumas County, California.

You can contact ...

  • Mike Turnipseed, director, Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, 775/687-4360;
  • Joe Dini, state assemblyman, Speaker of the House, 775/463-2669;
  • Tom Myers, executive director, Great Basin Mine Watch, 775/348-1986.
  • The 1999 Nevada state water plan is available on the Web at www.state.nv.us/cnr/ndwp/home.htm.

Copyright 2000 HCN and Jane Braxton Little

High Country News Classifieds