County commission approves letter to BLM regarding previous supreme court case

WINNEMUCCA — The Humboldt County Board of Commissioners recently voted unanimously to establish a standing on a Preliminary Environmental Assessment (PEA) for a Desert Land Entry (DLE) application in the Denio area, by addressing their concerns in a letter to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Humboldt River Field Office, which released the application for public comment. Chairman of the Board, Jim French, was absent and the rest of the Board was present, with Vicechair Ken Tipton leading the meeting. 

The PLE is in regards to multiple acres of land—1,111.64 acres, with approximately 875 acres used for agricultural purposes over a four year period—in Denio. The owners of the land had previously filed applications to the Office of the State Engineer of the State of Nevada and BLM, to change the point of diversion and place of use of groundwater previously appropriated within the Pine Forest Valley Hydrographic Basin in Humboldt County. The public comment period, required by law  to be held for PEAs, closed on June 24. 

In 2014, the property owners originally filed the request—applications 84606-84611 in the State Engineer’s Office (Interim Ruling #6349 and Final Ruling #6496) — to utilize unused water rights on  their property not reached by pivots by drilling more agricultural wells. It was denied by the State Water Engineer due to a receding water table in the area, over appropriation, long-term desuetude and per the requests from neighboring property owners, which was upheld by the Humboldt County Sixth Judicial District Court. But was then overturned by the Nevada Supreme Court because of an error on behalf of the State. Legally, the State is required to alert property owners that their water rights are to be forfeited due to nonuse. Because the Supreme Court overturned the verdict from the State Engineer and District Court, the property owners are reapplying for water rights, according to Commissioner Ron Cerri. 

According to sections VII, VIII, IX, X, of the  previous ruling documents, neighboring property owners determined that the installment of more agricultural wells would interfere with existing wells because of the decline in the water table in the basin, “granting additional withdrawals based on the unused water rights in an over-appropriated and over-pumped basin that is already experiencing substantial water table declines is contrary to the public interest” says section VIII.  “Portions of the existing water rights these applications seek to change have not been used for at least five consecutive years, and therefore, they essentially are seeking a new appropriation of water to irrigate additional land, which is prohibited by State Engineer Order 831.” 

Section IX voices the concern that 450 of the acres covered under the application are permitted to a neighboring property under grazing rights from the BLM. Animal Unit Month (AUM) is a concept used to determine the amount of forage needed to feed a 1,000-pound cow per month and is determined by the grazing rights that a rancher must apply for when seeking grazing rights on predetermined sectors of federal land managed by the BLM. 

The allotments from the BLM are tied to private land and were established by the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. They are integral to ranchers because they help determine how sustainable rangeland is for the rancher’s herd, as well as generating revenue for counties, according to the Congressional Research Service. Without adequate AUMs, cattle run out of food and counties lose funds. 

“We are addressing the loss of AUMs here,” said Cerri. “This goes against our County Land Use Plan, so we’re opposed to it.” 

The current grazing plan for the county calls for no new reductions in AUMs, according to county documents pertaining to the fiscal impact of the issue.

“As a county commission, we don’t want to see a reduction in AUMs because it will affect the county’s revenues,” Cerri said. “In order to be involved in the process as this moves forward, you almost have to protest so you’re at the table. If we don’t write a letter saying that we aren’t in favor of these losses of AUMs we can’t be at the table as this process goes forward because we didn’t weigh in on it in the beginning. That’s why I think it’s important right now for us to submit a letter of comments.”

County Manager Dave Mendiola pointed out that water issues pertain to the entire county. 

“The effects just go down river,” he said. “All of the other ranchers out there, if they have to dig deeper wells because of the water table, it is a cost to them and just in general, the balance of the table is in jeopardy.”