Everyone involved in water in Nevada knew what the Supreme Court decision of January 28 (that is, Great Basin Water Network v. Tracy Taylor) was: A decision that threw into question a mass of water rights and existing water uses around the state.
The decision was an appeal from district court reviewing what the court said was a narrow issue: “Whether the State Engineer violated his statutory duty under NRS 533.370(2) by failing to rule on Southern Nevada Water Authority‘s 1989 water appropriation applications within one year.” State law included that requirement at the time, waivable only if the parties agreed to an extension, which none did in the years following. The law was changed in 2003 “to permit the State Engineer to postpone action on pending applications made for municipal use. The district court determined that the amendment applied to SNWA’s 1989 applications”, because it found those applications were still “pending” – but the Supreme Court reversed that determination.
On June 20, however, the Supreme Court withdrew that decision and replaced it with another. Initially at least, a variety of parties (including some of those prevailing the first time) said they were happy to see the new one, because it offered clarification of what rights and agreements may still be valid.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which would be among the hardest hit prospectively by the earlier opinion, said in a statement:
In today’s judgment, the Nevada Supreme Court emphasized the need to balance due process issues and fairness to water right applicants.
“Voiding the State Engineer’s ruling and preventing him from taking further action would be inequitable to SNWA and future similarly situated applicants,” the opinion stated.
To address concerns among east-central Nevada residents who moved to the region after the application protest period expired in 1989 and other interested parties, the Nevada Supreme Court instead ruled that “the proper and most equitable remedy is that the State Engineer must re-notice the applications and reopen the protest period.”
SNWA General Manager Pat Mulroy said she was elated by the decision, which addressed the court’s concerns without unduly punishing an agency that had complied with all state requirements.
“This is a very fair outcome, because it allows protestants to have their voices heard without turning 100 years of water law on its ear and bogging down the water right permitting process. With Lake Mead—the primary source of water for two million Southern Nevada residents—imperiled by drought, we need to get all of the necessary permits in place so we can be ready to draw upon this available water resource if conditions warrant. This ruling puts us back on track.”
But the Great Basin Water Network, which had sued the state and largely prevailed the first time around, was not unhappy either:
The Nevada Supreme Court today re-affirmed its earlier unanimous decision that the Nevada State Engineer violated the due process rights of Utah and Nevada citizens in awarding tens of thousands of acre feet of groundwater to the Southern Nevada Water Authority to export to Las Vegas.
The Court sent SNWA back to square one, vacating the previous rulings of the State Engineer in valleys that were previously protest and requiring the Engineer to re-notice and re-open the protest period on all 1989 SNWA applications. The Court also clarified that its ruling pertains only to protested applications, relieving anxiety throughout Nevada that many unrelated applications pending before the State Engineer would be put in jeopardy.
The original suit, brought by the Great Basin Water Network, Defenders of Wildlife, Trout Unlimited, and fifty individual area residents, claimed that the State Engineer had failed to take timely action on the original water applications filed in 1989 and had improperly excluded groups and individuals from participating as protestants in the water appropriation process.
“The Nevada Supreme Court’s new, modified opinion confirms its central holding in this case,” said Simeon Herskovits, lead attorney for the opposition. “The Court has held that the State Engineer’s previous rulings on SNWA’s contested 1989 applications effectively are void, and those applications must be subjected to a new public notice and re-opened protest process, thus creating a new opportunity for anyone with an interest to protest these dangerous applications and challenge the State Engineer’s flawed previous rulings.”
“The Court also expressly addressed and disapproved of the efforts of SNWA and allied interest groups to manipulate the Legislature to retroactively change the record as to the 2003 Legislature’s intent regarding its statutory amendments to state law affecting the 1989 applications,” Herskovits said. “The Court pointed out to do so would be illegitimate and would not merit deference from the courts,” he said.
The case now goes back to district court and then to the state engineer for further action.
[see also Reno Gazette Journal, June 20]