The petitions, circulated by “voices for a sustainable Washoe County” and spearheaded by Bob Fulkerson, will require the signature of 18,000 Washoe County residents by June 27 to qualify for the Nov. 4 ballot. It reminds me of the water battles a decade ago.
Franklin Jeans, owner of Fish Springs Ranch, wanted to import water from Honey Lake to Washoe County providing water for proposed growth in Spanish Springs. Supposedly, 13,000 acre-feet of water could be pumped out of the valley north of Herlong annually without any draw-down or effect on existing wells in the area. Most of us were opposed to it. Sen. Harry Reid blocked a federal environmental study, the county lost a great deal of money and the project died.
At the time Sen. Reid was trying to gain support for his “negotiate settlement” prescribed to end all the water wars between California, the Paiutes of Pyramid Lake, Fallon, Washoe County and the Truckee Carson Irrigation District (TCID).
Basically, Sierra Pacific wanted to store 29,000 acre-feet of surface water in Stampede Reservoir for drought protection. Twenty-nine thousand acre-feet of water is equal to more than 2 to 3 inches of water at Lake Tahoe. The Pyramid Lake tribe releases water from Stampede during times of drought for the spawning of their sacred cui-ui fish, creating a shortage of water for growth demanded by our local politicians. The tribe participated in the Truckee River operating agreement and demanded all Washoe County residents install water meters as a method of conservation.
I was opposed to the water meter mandate. With the help of Laurie Edgington, we successfully circulated petitions in Reno and Sparks in opposition. I knew the water meter mandate had nothing to do with conservation. It was a device that allowed and promoted growth. It turned out I was right. If you have any doubt, compare the population and the number of building starts before we had water meters to the growth we have today. So much for conserved water.
Regardless of what Sierra Pacific said, the water saved from water meters wasn’t conserved. It was leveraged against and redistributed to builders for growth.
State Assembly Bill 900 prohibited mandated water meters in Washoe County. Sen. Reid, the tribe and local government pressured the Legislature to amend AB-900 allowing for water meters. The bill was amended.
The Reno and Sparks city councils, lobbied by Sierra Pacific, illegally reworded the petition on the ballot. Instead of asking if the voters were in favor or opposed to mandated water meters, the ballot question asked if they wanted to vote on the issue in the future or allow the city councils to make the decision for them. The public trusted the politicians instead of themselves. Consequently, the installation of water meters guaranteed future growth for the developers.
The operating agreement required the developers to give Sierra Pacific their ground water rights in exchange for the use of Sierra Pacific’s surface water, which they didn‘t have, creating “paper water.” This saved Sierra Pacific millions of dollars because they didn’t have to purchase ground water rights.
Sierra Pacific had plenty of paper water rights for non-existing surface water, but didn’t have control or a monopoly on our ground water supply. Exchanging unused proven ground water for surface water that didn’t exist created an unnecessary dependency on the river and reservoirs.
Sen. Reid’s negotiated settlement saved Sierra Pacific’s bottom line and was the main instrument responsible for our accelerated growth. Ironically, Sierra Pacific power was one of Reid’s big campaign contributors. Why not?
After Sierra Pacific snookered the developers out of their valuable water rights, they sold their water division for $50 million more than it was worth to our local government. They had higher bids from private corporations, but chose local government ownership because water rates would no longer be regulated by the state.
I never protest without offering a solution. I proposed an alternative to water meter conservation. It was a schematic that reduced the number of building permits issued in years of drought. This would allow us to grow within the availability of actual surface water not the ownership of water rights.
I made presentations to regional planning, local government officials and all the environmentalists concerned with sustainable growth, but to no avail. I wonder why.
There will never be a water shortage in Washoe County. We have enough ground water to last 100 years. The sea- level at the bottom of Lake Tahoe is the same as the floor of Washoe County. Beneath the lake there is 1,000 feet of sediment which spreads for miles beneath the valley floor. You can’t build a house in Sparks or parts of Reno with a basement because the water table is so high. As a matter of fact, some old sprawl homes in Sparks still have sump-pumps to pump out the excess ground water.
The water battle will go on for years. The polemics of development, annexation, growth and the conservative use of our natural resources will continue to be the redominate fulcrum of debate.
Petitions will come and go. Well meaning environmentalists and activists will still struggle to protect our quality of life and make government accountable. However, we will always have more water than we will ever use.
David Farside is a Sparks resident and political activist. The polemics of his articles can be discussed at farsidian2001 @yahoo.com. His Web site is www.thefarsidechronicles.com.