Babbitt's Impact on Nevada
'Range Reform' Deforms Water Scene
by Steve Miller
copyright © 1996, Electric Nevada
|"We're having a heck of a time getting any water development done in this state," said Doug Busselman of the Nevada Farm Bureau.|
was explaining the freeze -- still existing today -- that
descended on new Nevada range improvements two years ago
in response to the Clinton Administration's
"Rangeland Reform" regulations.
Nevada's state water engineer, Mike Turnipseed, agrees.
"Development of water on the rangeland has come to a screeching halt," he told Electric Nevada. "There's been no action taken on a lot of these [water applications] for a long time."
"It doesn't matter whether the rancher wants to pay for the improvements or the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] wants to pay for the improvements. The whole process has come to a standstill because of the Rangeland Reform and the resulting Senate Bill 96."
Under "Rangeland Reform," the Clinton range policy announced in March of 1994 by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and now-departed Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, the federal government was to take ownership of all water rights on western land administered by federal agencies -- even if those water sources had been developed by, and the rights to them had been historically the property of, private individuals.
Senate Bill 96, passed by both houses of the Nevada Legislature in 1995 and signed into law by Governor Bob Miller, was intended to block implementation of Babbitt's policy in the state of Nevada. The bill, its sponsors say, was designed to not only protect the water rights of farmers and ranchers from the federal government, but also the historical legal position of the State of Nevada.
"When Babbitt came along and said, 'from here on out, the water rights belong to the federal government,' that's what created the need to codify something in state statutes so that private individuals would still be able to maintain or establish, based on state law, private water rights on public lands," says the farm bureau's Busselman.
State engineer Turnipseed, who opposed the original form of the state senate bill, says the Babbitt policy disrupted a successful arrangement between the BLM and ranchers.
"There was a time when both the ranching community and the BLM, rather than fight over whose name was on the paper, [would] make joint filings.
"That seemed to work fine, until Babbitt comes out with the Rangeland Reform," he said.
"It, in the reading, looks like another federal takeover. The language says that all water rights and water management will be in the name of the United States unless otherwise provided by law."
But what may have looked like a successful arrangement from the point of view of the State Engineer's office, say others, has actually been a squeeze play on Nevada farmers and ranchers by the BLM.
"A person may have a water right on the public lands already, and in order to make beneficial use of that water, they need to do a development," says Busselman.
"They go to the agency, the BLM, and say 'We need a permit from you guys," and [the BLM officials] say, "Well, we'll give you a permit when you give us half the water."
Elko Assemblyman John C. Carpenter says the so-called "joint" claims are generally extorted claims, where the feds won't cooperate at all unless private water rights owners "buckle under."
"What they've been doing is, if you drill a well or something, then they want half of the water right. And so some people, I guess, have had to do that.
"If the people really need the water, and the BLM insists they have to have half the water right, why, there's not too much you can do," he said.
Carpenter called SB-96 "one of the most important bills" to come out of the 1995 legislature.
Both he and Senate Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Dean Rhoads -- out of whose committee the
Top of page
bill came -- interpreted the new law as
preventing the U.S. government from attaining any new
stockwatering rights in the state of Nevada.
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