The Worth of Water: Nevada and its State Drought Plans

NV Drought Map Sept 2015 Consider the following information from the Reno Gazette Journal:

“In Nevada, all counties but White Pine and Lincoln are designated as drought disaster areas. Washoe, Storey, Carson City, Douglas, Lyon, Churchill, Esmeralda, Lander, Mineral and Nye counties are all in conditions of extreme or exceptional drought, with Lovelock’s Pershing County among the “hardest hit areas,” according to the Aug. 17 drought statement issued by the National Weather Service.”

And this:

“It’s difficult to overstate the dire impacts, said Benny Hodges, secretary-treasurer of the Pershing County Water Conservation District. As the drought lowered the Humboldt River and levels of Rye Patch Reservoir — now at about 5 percent of capacity — continued to drop, irrigation water for Lovelock area farmers went from scarce to non-existent. Irrigation allocations went from 80 percent of normal in 2012, the first year of the drought, to only 10 percent in 2013. This year is the second in a row that no irrigation water was available at all.”

There are some actions which are the direct result of a drought designation by the US Department of Agriculture: in 17 of Nevada’s governmental entities farmers and ranchers will be eligible for low interest emergency loans to continue operations. [AgWeb]

A reasonable person would think that an arid state would have some plans on file for dealing with drought conditions – other than directing agricultural operations toward emergency loans.  As of December 28, 2014 Nevada really  didn’t. [RGJ]  Although it must be said there was a document in some filing cabinet, which the Governor had received in 2012 concerning drought planning.  Local water districts and companies have drought plans, but as of December 2014 that didn’t necessarily hold true for the state.

It wasn’t until April 8, 2015 (with Nevada now into the fourth year of drought conditions) that the Governor’s office announced the creation of a “forum” to “craft a blueprint on best practices for water users and conservation.” [LVRJ]

What’s interesting about that the announcement at the shrinking lake side was that Governor Sandoval received a “State of Nevada: Drought Response Plan” (pdf) from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the State Climate Office, and the Department of Public Safety, as revised in April 2012.  

“This State Drought Response Plan establishes an administrative coordinating and reporting system between agencies to appropriately respond and provide assistance to address drought and mitigate drought impacts. […] this Plan identifies a system used in monitoring the magnitude, severity and extent of drought within the state on a county by county basis. It establishes a framework of actions based on three states of responding to drought. Drought Watch, Drought Alert, and Drought Emergency.”

Scrolling down through the 2012 executive summary we find, “If a drought reaches Stage #3 (Drought Emergency) upon the decision of the Governor, the Division of Emergency Management may activate the State Emergency Operations Center. This center will be advised by the Drought Response Committee, making drought response policy recommendations as needed, supporting local drought emergency response efforts and carrying out the Governor’s policies.”

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the 2012 document is the insertion of diagrams designating the process for informing the Governor, sorting the activities of various authorities, and assisting the Governor in the setting of “the state’s priorities, drought mitigation, response and recovery policy and resource allocation direction based on information and recommendations given to the Governor by the Drought Response Committee and the needs of affected local jurisdictions, county or tribe.”

Another element in the 2012 document of interest is the insertion of some very tepid language about drought designations and their associated impact on other economic activities. “Formal designation may not substantially reduce economic impacts in drought affected areas but may cause serious economic impacts on tourism, agriculture, finance and other industries within the state. Unless a drought situation is expected to be of extreme magnitude, the safest approach is to aid county and local governments in determining their own situations.”

And with that the 2012 State of Nevada Drought Response Plan dumps the problems back onto the counties, local water suppliers, and tribes.  Thus, it isn’t easy to get an “emergency” drought designation in the first place, and when the designation or announcement is made the plans submitted by the various entities which deliver water within the state are supposed to kick in.

NRS 540 codifies this system.  Water suppliers are defined (NRS 540.121), water conservation plans, which are to be updated every five years, are required (NRS 540. 131) and are to be published “to the extent practicable” for public inspection on websites (NRS 540.141).  Water supplies are to provide incentives for water conservation. (NRS 540.151).

It’s easy to see why initial reports said there really wasn’t a statewide water conservation/drought plan – the plan appears to be that the state will require individual entities to have approved plans, and that the state will announce when the drought emergency elements of those various plans will be implemented – bearing in mind that given the soft language in the 2012 Drought Response document it’s probably going to be difficult to get the state to make that initial emergency announcement.

We return now to Sandoval’s Executive Order 2015-03, April 8, 2015.  After the preliminary “whereas’s” in which it’s admitted that Nevada has a water problem, and that the Nevada Drought Response Committee authorized by the 2012 document has been “continuously monitoring” the drought conditions,  the Governor has decided we need another report, from another layer of administration.

Sandoval established the Nevada Drought Forum in order to: (1) build on the activities of the existing Nevada Drought Response Committee; (2) evaluate key findings and next steps identified in the Western Governors’ Drought Forum Final Report (latest available is the Special Report, June 2015) as they relate to Nevada; (3) meet with relevant stakeholders; and (4) determine, with input from stakeholders and the public, the elements of a final report to the Governor.

As part of the bullet points in the executive order, there will be a Governor’s Drought Summit on September 21-23.  Unless some highly specific topics are generated in periods for “Showcases: Conservation Success Stories in Nevada,” or from the sessions on municipal, resort and recreation, industry and development, and agricultural water conservation – there doesn’t seem to be much emphasis on the development of a state PLAN for dealing with drought conditions.

To add more opacity to the issue, that Western Governors’ Drought Forum Report concluded:

“(1) Drought’s consequences ripple across western economies, communities, and environments. Preventing or halting drought is impossible, but there are useful strategies for enhancing resilience to its effects.  WGA will continue to work on drought by enhancing its Drought Forum online resource library, hosting webinars and workshops and briefing state and federal policymakers. (2)  WGA will perform additional outreach to drought task forces in the western states to identify data gaps that need to be addressed. (3) WGA will also compare  and contrast the approaches of these state task forces in order to identify additional best practices. (4)  In response to one of the key themes identified during the Drought Forum,  WGA will work with state and federal partners to support robust data collection and enhanced analyses and tools for drought management. Furthermore, the governors will consider the policy recommendations that emerged from the first year of Drought Forum as they work to improve the regional response to drought and to influence national decisions affecting water supply and resource management.”  (numeration added) (Special Report June 2015)

There’s good and bad news herein.  In item (1) there’s no indication that the western Governors are aware that one of the ways to mitigate drought is to acknowledge that climate change is a modern reality.  Indeed, there’s no small amount of fatalism – droughts might just be the new reality.  “Prevention is impossible,” is about as fatalistic as it gets. (2) is just about as safe a proposal as one can make – there’s always a need for more and better data collection. However, there’s nothing in this conclusion that insures there will be money in state budgets for such data collection and analysis.  (3) Best practices are also a safe bet.  However, it will require some legislative and executive will power to enact best practices into law, and to administer the statutes with an emphasis on conservation.  (4)  We’re back to data collection and sharing – a fine thing – but someone needs to pay for the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data.  Executive orders are usually good, but appropriations are nearly always better.

Color me a bit cynical, however a look at the sponsors of the WGA Drought Forum leaves some questions about the level of intensity with which they will address governmental actions necessary to address drought in western states.  NOAA and the Walton Family Foundation are “workshop partners,” the State of Oklahoma is a “regional forum sponsor,” “project sponsors” include the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Coeur Mining, Water Asset Management LLC, and Layne Inc.  “Report sponsors” include HDR, NHA, Nevada Mining Association, Dairy Farmers of America, Barrick, SRP, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Parjana, Pepsico, and Chevron.  “Communication sponsors” are ASI, Resolution Copper Mining, CAP, ECOS, National Groundwater Association, the Geological Society of America, Paramount Farming, and Irrigational & Electrical Districts Assn of Arizona.

And so, the Nevada Drought Forum has a nice shiny website, with updated information on monthly situations reports (the last up was for June 2015) – in which a person could find out if he or she was experiencing emergency, extreme, or exceptional drought conditions.  Or, discover that there have been three monthly meetings since June 2015, and a fourth scheduled for September 28, 2015.   Since minutes are not yet available online for the August meeting, we’ll not know if concerns expressed in a previous meeting about the lack of representation from wildlife advocates and rural areas were addressed in that session.

Questions?

  1. If the drought in Nevada is particularly extreme in rural areas like Pershing County, why were there no representatives on the Governor’s list of appointments to the Drought Forum from rural agricultural interests? Has this since been rectified?
  2. If we are aware of the effects of drought conditions on wildlife – why no initial representation for those interests? Has this been rectified?
  3. If we know that extreme weather conditions are associated climate change, and with droughts such as the one Nevada is experiencing now, then what elements of climate change science will be incorporated into the state’s planning for drought mitigation efforts?
  4. If the Nevada Drought Forum is directed to present its report to the Governor on November 1, 2015, then what actions has the Governor’s office taken to facilitate the enactment of legislation to implement the report findings in advance of the release?  The WGA Special Report (June 2015) emphasizes data collection.  If the report meshes with the WGA efforts,  do the various departments and divisions have the necessary funding to collect and analyze the data? 
  5. The Governor’s executive order doesn’t indicate any change in the status of the 2012 State of Nevada Drought Response plan, if the November report suggests changes in the SNDR then are the departments capable of implementing those changes?

So we resume our quotidian activities – further illustrating the truth of the old quote: “We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”  (Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia  1732.

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