By Robin Hebrock Pahrump Valley Times – April 13, 2018 – 7:00 am
Nye County residents Victor and Annette Fuentes have been embroiled in a longstanding battle over water with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now, Nye County officials are stepping in to request federal assistance for the couple.
Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly and Nye County Commission Chairman John Koenig sent a letter to the White House on April 5. The letter requests direct intervention by President Donald Trump, asking him to address the situation and force the USFWS to return the water to the Fuentes’ 40-acre private property, Patch of Heaven Christian Camp, which is located within Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
“The Fuenteses are continuing to be denied the full measure of water granted to them first by nature and second by the Office of the Nevada State Engineer in Ruling #6348,” Wehrly wrote to the White House Office of Political Affairs. “We would greatly appreciate the president’s assistance in urging the USFWS to repair the diversion, channel the water back into its original path, the path that God and geology chose millennia ago, and return the disturbed land back to its original state.”
The problem all started almost eight years ago when the USFWS constructed a diversion channel that altered the course of water down the Carson Slough, ultimately redirecting the water flow away from the Fuentes’ property. Without the water, the Fuentes’ land began to dry up and their business of the Patch of Heaven Christian Camp, which is part of Ministerio Roca Solida Ingelsia Cristiana, started to suffer.
“We bought the property in November of 2006 and we actually started working on it in 2007. Then in 2010, the USFWS diverted the streams that had flowed to the property since the 1800s, they diverted that off our land,” Annette explained in an interview on April 11. “They did it illegally and unlawfully, without getting the appropriate permits from entities like the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA and others. So we went to court. And we are still in the U.S. Federal Court of Claims over this.”
Annette stated that throughout the years since the couple’s lawsuit was filed, the diversion has caused a frustrating mixture of dry, dusty conditions a majority of the time and periods of frightening flooding that damage the land and put a pinch on their business.
“We’ve lost our trees, we’ve lost our grass and we’ve lost a lot of business as well. The water was something that set us apart from other church camps and retreats. It’s a rarity in the Nevada desert, it was an oasis. And now that’s all changed,” she said. “On top of that, the USFWS didn’t account for any rainfall when they built their diversion channel so the water jumps the banks and floods us out whenever it rains. It’s dangerous, flooding. It’s horrible, it’s scary and it tears up our land.”
However, fixing the situation is no easy task. The Fuenteses have been struggling to have the water fully restored to their property since 2010 and that effort is still underway.
“The Nevada state engineer ruled in our favor in 2016 for them to put the water back. When the state engineer ruled they should put the water back, USFWS did not agree with that and they told the engineer that they were going to run a pipe, run a pump, pump some water into a tank and then into the original ditch,” Annette explained. “As it is, there are nothing but problems with that system.”
Wehrly touched on this in her letter as well, writing, “The amount of water provided to them produces a flow of water approximately 15 feet to stagnant water and ceases, soaking into barren ground. The pump is non-operational on a regular basis… The state engineer’s ruling confirms the Fuentes’ right to the water. However, the USFWS has not returned the flow of water down Carson Slough from their diversionary, man-made alternate ditch project back into its original path… The water provided is less than one percent of the water historically flowing down Carson Slough. In other words, the USFWS has retained 99 percent of the diverted water…”
An obviously angry Annette stated, “You know what they said to me about that? ‘Take us to court.’”
That is just what the Fuenteses are doing. “We are still in the court of federal claims, for takings,” she said, “And we are very, very happy to see officials backing us on this. It’s been a long battle and a lot of pushing but it looks like finally they are all getting on board. At least the sheriff and some of the commissioners are. We’re absolutely thankful for their help with this.”
Koenig said the idea to pen a letter to Washington D.C. was Wehrly’s and he asked to be a co-signer in an attempt to add weight to the request. As for the outcome, Koenig said, “What we are hoping is that somehow this gets to someone in Washington who can order these miscreants to do what is right and return the land to the way it was.”
Those wishing to learn more about the situation will have the opportunity next weekend when the Patch of Heaven Rally and Open House is held. On April 20, 21 and 22 the refuge camp will open to the public and Ryan Bundy, who is running for Nevada governor this year, will host a “water rights summit” the first evening. Annette encouraged the public to attend.
“We want people to be able to take a look and see what’s been done,” she invited. “It’s like so many people have told me. They heard about it but they didn’t really understand it until they were out there, looking at it. You just can’t describe it. You have to see it to fully grasp it.”
When reached regarding the subject, USFWS representatives responded, “The service is not able to comment on pending litigation.”