CARSON CITY, Nev.— The Nevada Supreme Court ruled today that the state has a right to manage groundwater for the preservation of senior water rights and the public interest, including wildlife.
Today’s decision in the Lower White River Flow System case will help determine the future of water management in the driest state in the union. The Center for Biological Diversity was a co-respondent in the case.
“This is a monumental victory for the conservation of water resources in a time of escalating climate change and drought,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the Center. “Nevada’s animals are already under stress from the lack of water resources, and our victory will help ensure that industry and developers don’t leave wildlife high and dry.”
The case centers around an aquifer that sustains the Muddy River in Clark County, Nevada. This spring-fed oasis provides habitat for an endangered fish called the Moapa dace. The Muddy River is also a source of drinking water for Las Vegas.
Coyote Springs, a proposed city of a quarter-million people in the desert 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas, applied for groundwater rights to pump water that scientists say would deplete the springs the Moapa dace relies on for survival.
The state engineer, Nevada’s water czar, ordered a pump test and extensive hydrologic investigations. He then ruled that there was a finite supply of water available in the aquifer and that excessive pumping would impair senior water rights and harm the Moapa dace.
“The state engineer made the right call in ordering that groundwater and surface water be managed together for the benefit of the public interest, including wildlife,” said Donnelly. “The Moapa dace is protected by the Endangered Species Act, and that means the state can’t take actions that would drive the species toward extinction.”
The Center has been fighting for the Moapa dace against the destructive Coyote Springs proposal for more than 15 years, spanning numerous court cases and administrative interventions.
In its ruling today, the court overturned a district court ruling in Sullivan et al. v. Lincoln County et al.
The court also remanded the case back to the District Court Judge Bita Yeager for a ruling on whether the state’s order was based on substantial evidence. This is a distinct set of legal criteria from today’s ruling, which evaluated whether the state had the power to issue the order.
“We’ve been fighting for this little fish for more than 15 years, and we’re not backing down an inch,” said Donnelly. “We’ll continue to press our case and we won’t rest until we can pound the nails into Coyote Springs’ coffin.”