Ellen M. Gilmer, E&E News reporter
The latest clash between federal land managers and Sagebrush Rebellion-style critics played out in tense but buttoned-up proceedings yesterday in a quiet courtroom in Washington, D.C.
There, government lawyers urged the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to toss a lawsuit from Nevada landowners who say a federal restoration project stole their water and flooded their land.
At issue is Patch of Heaven, a Christian camp on private land nestled within the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
The Nevada church Ministerio Roca Solida bought the 40-acre site in 2006 for $500,000. At the time, a stream called the Carson Slough flowed across the property, feeding plants and a small pond and sometimes serving as a site for baptisms.
In 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages all of the surrounding land, rerouted the channel in a restoration project to help the Ash Meadows speckled dace, an endangered fish that lives in the area’s warm springs.
Annette and Victor Fuentes, who own Ministerio Roca Solida, say the government owes them compensation for eliminating the stream from their property — except for a trickle of water the site claimed through a state permit — and rerouting it in a way that causes repeated flooding on another part of the parcel.
The couple teamed up with the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation and attracted the support of Westerners opposed to federal land management, including the Bundy ranching family infamous for its conflicts with government agencies.
Speaking at a boisterous rally at Patch of Heaven last year, Ryan Bundy offered to demolish the FWS project himself (Greenwire, April 23, 2018).
The mood was decidedly tamer during yesterday’s hearing, where just five spectators — including one reporter and one court employee — listened to more than two hours of technical arguments involving property rights, water law and hydrology.
Judge Elaine Kaplan must decide whether to grant the government’s motion for summary judgment rather than allowing the case to proceed to trial.
The church’s claims are twofold: that the government’s elimination of streamflow on the land without payment amounted to an unconstitutional taking of vested water rights, and that the diversion project’s contribution to flooding was also a taking.
Justice Department lawyers yesterday disputed both claims. The government contends the landowners are not entitled to the water rights they claim, and, in any case, that issue should be adjudicated by the state of Nevada, not the Federal Claims court.
The two lawyers from DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division also attempted to poke holes in the Fuenteses’ flooding claims, dismissing the plaintiffs’ expert testimony as unsubstantiated and noting that the broader area is prone to flooding.
“Plaintiffs would like this court to believe … that there was never flooding on that part of the property,” DOJ attorney Davené Walker said, adding that the area is part of a flood zone and has a well-documented history of such events.
Walker explained that to win a takings claim against the government for flooding, the plaintiff must show that FWS caused the flooding and intended or expected it to happen. Ministerio Roca Solida has offered no evidence to support either prong, she said.
Mountain States Legal Foundation lawyer Zhonette Brown, in turn, questioned the evidence presented by the government.
Kaplan, an Obama appointee, agreed with the government that Ministerio Roca Solida’s expert testimony appeared “a little thin,” but she questioned whether it would be appropriate to resolve the case in favor of the United States at this stage, without allowing the church to make its case at trial.
She also empathized with the Fuenteses on their loss of the stream, regardless of whether FWS’s project was lawful.
“I won’t say the word ‘screwed,'” she said of the landowners, eventually landing on the word “injured.”
The judge added that she’s never heard a water rights case or a flooding case before and will need some time to consider the competing evidence.
“Your Honor’s more than welcome to come out to the property,” Brown said, “so you can make your own conclusion.”
For a guy with a vague job title, State Engineer Jason King has been involved in some pretty important decisions for Nevada.
During his eight years as the state’s top water regulator, he banned new residential wells in Pahrump, blocked water development for the long-stalled Coyote Springs master-planned community and twice ruled on controversial plans to pipe groundwater to Las Vegas from eastern Nevada.
The 57-year-old King retired Friday after a 28-year career as a state employee, including the last eight as state engineer and administrator for the Nevada Division of Water Resources.
Bradley Crowell, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, has appointed King’s current deputy administrator, Tim Wilson, as acting state engineer.
Wilson has been with the Division of Water Resources since 1995. He will inherit several major ongoing water issues, including pending court challenges of King’s most recent actions regarding Pahrump, Coyote Springs and the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s in-state pipeline plans.
Though it might not be obvious from the title, the state engineer is responsible for the appropriation and regulation of all water within the state, except for the Colorado River. The position includes oversight of water well drilling, dam safety, water planning and floodplain management.
In 2012, King granted the water authority some of the groundwater it wants to tap in rural Clark, Lincoln and White Pine counties. Then last year, he rescinded those same water rights because of a 2013 court ruling he said he disagreed with but was legally bound to follow.
That decision is now under appeal, as are two other contentious orders he issued since 2017 barring new domestic groundwater wells in Pahrump and prohibiting more pumping by the developers of Coyote Springs. In both of those cases, King said he was acting to protect existing well owners and water levels in aquifers he considered to be severely over-appropriated.
King was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he earned a degree in civil engineering in 1986. He moved to Las Vegas in 1988 and went to work for the Division of Water Resources in 1991, after three years of structural design work in support of underground nuclear testing at what was then known as Nevada Test Site.
When interviewed for a profile in 2011, he told the Review-Journal that he didn’t know anything about Nevada water law when he took the job, but he came to “live and breathe” the subject as he rose through the division’s ranks to state engineer in 2010.
In the same statement, Crowell praised King for his “extraordinary service to Nevada” and for “addressing complex issues head-on with perseverance and integrity.”
By Robin Hebrock | Pahrump Valley Times | December 12, 2018 – 7:00 am
On Nov. 8 a Nevada district court judge ruled that Nevada State Engineer Order #1293(A) be rescinded and now, a month later, the court order making that ruling official has been signed and filed.
However, the fight is far from over, with the receipt of the court order by the state engineer’s signaling a 30-day period in which it can file an appeal over that decision. According to office representatives, the engineer does indeed plan to seek an appeal and Pahrump residents will have to bide their time once again as they wait to see the ultimate result of this battle of the engineer’s office versus area property owners, well drillers and real estate agents.
“Given the significant potential impact of the court’s ruling on all Nevada water users, the state engineer intends to appeal the District Court’s decision to the Nevada Supreme Court and to simultaneously seek a stay of the decision,” Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Public Information Officer JoAnn Kittrell stated when reached for comment on behalf of the state engineer’s office.
Order #1293 was issued by Nevada State Engineer Jason King in Dec. 2017, following a request for such action by the Nye County Water District Governing Board. The order restricted the drilling of domestic wells in Pahrump’s Basin #162 by requiring that all new domestic wells have at least two acre-feet of water rights relinquished to the state in support of the well, prompting a wave of criticism and concern in the valley.
Shortly after the initial order was signed off, Pahrump residents and property owners banded together to form Pahrump Fair Water LLC, which immediately filed suit to challenge the engineer’s order. Six months after the original order, an amended version, Order #1293(A), was issued and the state engineer’s office attempted to have Pahrump Fair Water’s lawsuit thrown out, arguing that Order #1293(A) superseded Order #1293 and therefore the lawsuit was moot.
However, Pahrump Fair Water was not about to let this create a stumbling block and the group, represented by attorney Dave Rigdon of Taggart and Taggart LTD, entered into a settlement agreement with the engineer’s office in which the suit against Order #1293 was dropped and a new petition was filed against Order #1293(A). In return for this action, the engineer’s office agreed to an expedited case schedule.
On Nov. 8 district court Judge Steven Elliott ruled in favor of Pahrump Fair Water and tasked Rigdon with drafting the court order that would effectively rescind Order #1293(A). Rigdon submitted his draft to the courts on Nov. 21, but his was not the only version for the judge to consider.
Rigdon explained for the Pahrump Valley Times that the state engineer’s office disagreed with the language of Rigdon’s proposed order and had decided to take what Rigdon described as a “rather unusual step” by submitting a proposed order of its own. In the end, however, it was Pahrump Fair Water’s proposal that judge Elliott put his pen to and signed off on Dec. 3. The document was officially filed on Dec. 6.
Court order language
In the 10-page court order, Rigdon outlines Pahrump Fair Water’s stance that the state engineer’s office overreached its authority and violated constitutional due process by its lack of notice to affected parties. Furthermore, the court order details that Order #1293(A) is not supported by any substantial evidence.
“The language of NRS 534.030(4) is plain and unambiguous. The statute grants the state engineer general supervisory power over all groundwater wells except domestic wells. The history of this particular provision, and of groundwater law in general, demonstrate that the Legislature purposely intended to exempt domestic wells from the state engineer’s regulatory authority except in certain limited circumstances inapplicable to the present case,” the court order composed by Rigdon reads. “Accordingly, the amended order is an invalid exercise of authority that the state engineer does not possess.”
“The Nevada Supreme Court has ruled that prior to issuing a regulation affecting an interest in real property, a regulatory body must provide personal notice to each affected property owner,” the document continues. “Said notice must include the content of the regulation so that affected parties can adequately prepare to oppose it. Finally, the regulatory body must hold a hearing and allow affected property owners the opportunity to provide testimony and evidence related to the regulation.
“A failure to follow these steps is a constitutional due process violation that renders the regulation invalid. Because the orders impair a vested property right, and because the state engineer failed to provide notice or hold a hearing before issuing the orders, the orders are hereby deemed invalid,” document also said.
The court order prepared by Rigdon also lays out Pahrump Fair Water’s belief that the state engineer does not have any significant evidence to show that Order #1293(A) is necessary. “…the Pahrump basin is not currently being over-pumped, groundwater pumping in Pahrump has declined since 1969, as a result of this reduction in pumping, water levels in some portions the basin have leveled off or significantly rebounded (in some cases by as much as 45 feet), and the Amended Order contains no scientific analysis of whether the drilling of additional domestic wells impact existing wells in the basin.”
The engineer’s office argued against each of these claims during the hearings held in the matter but to no avail. The court order states that the court determined that Pahrump Fair Water’s arguments to this effect were valid and the engineer’s office “arbitrarily and capriciously” issued Order #1293(A).
“It is hereby ordered that petitioners’ petition for judicial review is granted,” the court order concludes. “It is hereby ordered that the respondent’s amended Order #1293(A) is reversed.”
As for the question of where drilling of domestic wells in the Pahrump Valley stands today, Kittrell replied, “The Office of the State Engineer is awaiting results of its request for a stay, and appeal while reviewing new requests to drill domestic wells in Pahrump.”