HAWTHORNE - A failure to set water quality standards for Walker Lake could result in a federal lawsuit against the state.
The Federal Clean Water Act requires that every three years states review and adopt attainable water quality standards that protect beneficial uses of public waters within their boundaries.
While there are quality standards for the arms of the Walker River, there are no specific standards for Walker Lake.
Tom Porta, chief of the Nevada Bureau of Water Quality Planning, said he has been working on the project for two and a half years and was already a year behind in meeting the federal time schedule.
"There is the potential of being sued. We are one of 15 remaining states that have not been sued (for not meeting the federal timeline), probably because of our proactive attempts to complete the project. Today you (members of the State Environmental Commission) saw what we have been dealing with for these two and a half years."
Members of the Walker Lake Working Group, an organization formed to save the lake as a fresh water fishery, has disputed much of the information presented by upstream interests.
"You are being asked to help the state comply with the Clean Water Act,"said Rose Strickland, a spokeswoman for the working group. "No one here expects you to solve Walker Lake's problems."
Strickland disputed testimony presented at a hearing last week.
"These claims ignore droughts caused by upstream irrigation diversions," she said. "There are many kinds of drought - some are under our control and some are not." However, Walker River Irrigation District attorney Gordon DePaoli said the proposed water quality standards are not consistent with the pursuit of agriculture.
"The proposed standards should be modified to allow them to be an integral part of a comprehensive watershed management approach that actively considers the relationships among climate, hydrology, ecology, land use and resource allocation and protection," he told the commission.
A 1995 U.S. Geological Survey office report states that it would take up to an additional 700,000 acre-feet of water into the lake and another 47,000 acre- feet per year to meet the proposed standards of 10,000 milligrams per liter of total dissolved solids. Upstream users argue that level is unattainable.
Depaoli said that, with the exception of extremely wet years, the water is not available. He suggested the commission consider adopting standards based on a sliding scale, taking into account the climactic variation in the watershed.
"A sliding scale can be protective and attainable. It is better to look at what is attainable and start from there," said upstream users' consultant Jean Balderidge of Entrix, Inc.
However, Division of Wildlife Supervising Fisheries Biologist Mike Sevon said, "It (10,000 mg/l) is a level we need to recommend. It would maintain a healthy ecosystem and fishery."
Several commission members appeared concerned the standard might be unrealistic.
"How do we go ask the agricultural community to do these things to try and reach goals that are not attainable?" asked Commissioner Paul Iverson. "If we implement these standards, what do we do tomorrow when they start taking water away they need to maintain their agricultural economy?"