The old saying goes, "You don't miss your water 'till your well runs dry" and many in the state and the rural counties are taking that to heart.
Deputy State Water Engineer Jason King said SB275, the new law that went into effect Jan. 1, allows domestic well users to withdraw 2 acre-feet a year, slightly less than the previous allowance of 1,800 gallons a day, or 2.2 acre feet a year.
It also assigns priority for drilling a domestic well to the date the well is completed, he said.
"Before Jan. 1, there was no law that let us assign priority," he said. "Our whole water law is based on 'first in time, first in line.'"
The new law also includes provisions about landowners who want to divide their land into smaller parcels located in basins that are believed to be overappropriated. Under SB275, landowners will be required to provide water rights for the smaller lots before dividing the parcels.
State officials are working to implement the law, which allows for some regulation and prioritizing of domestic wells, parceling and relinquishing or dedication of water rights to protect hydrographic basins believed to be overappropriated.
King said the state is requiring counties to institute restrictions on parceling, or the state will do it.
"Every county we talk to wants to do it themselves and are making it part of their ordinances," he said.
The rule means that if a property owner has 20 acres he or she wants to subdivide into four 5-acre lots, then that property owner has to provide water rights for three of the lots and either dedicate those rights to the county or GID, or other water purveyor, or relinquish them to the state.
Lyon County Utilities Director Mike Workman and Planning Director Rob Loveberg are working on a draft ordinance that would bring the county into compliance with the state law. Workman said it's just in its draft stages and there will be future public hearings before it could be enacted.
Loveberg said the legislation means that the Nevada Division of Water Resources can review parcel maps regarding water issues where parcels are served by domestic wells.
He said new ordinances are needed for the county to benefit from water rights dedications.
"If the county has a way of managing the water right it goes to the county, but in the short term it may not be that the county receives dedication throughout the county because it may not have the ability to utilize or manage that water," he said.
Loveberg said all of the basins within Lyon County would be subject to this new law eventually.
Storey County Building and Planning Official Dean Haymore said all of the basins in his county are subject to the new law.
"That means anyone who wants to hook up an outside building or mother-in-law quarters has to put a well meter on it," he said. "And you can't split land anymore, you have to have water rights for that other land before you split them now."
King said the new law just gives the state another tool to prevent the deterioration of a basin. He said most of Nevada's basins are not fully appropriated.
"It gives us more tools to regulate and manage the resource, like the priority of domestic wells, and allows us the ability to require the dedications of water rights for parceling," he said.
He said meters will not be required on either new or existing wells, unless a landowner has two residences attached to one well. In that case, the property owner has to pay for a meter, and the property is restricted to the 2 acre-feet a year amount.
"The meter condition comes into play only if you want to hook up two buildings," he said. "Then we are going to monitor it."
King said if a landowner uses more than 2 acre-feet a year they will receive a letter from the Division of Water Resources ordering them into compliance, and if they still don't comply, they will receive a cease-and-desist order. He said continued noncompliance could lead to a well shutoff.
"We are working on regulations for fines and penalties," he said. "I hope we never have to collect $1 in fines, but it would give us the ability to get compliance from people."
King said the new law would affect developers, but added, "most of the people in those basins are aware of the water issues in those basins and it shouldn't catch them by surprise."
• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at email@example.com or 881-7351.
Some facts on the domestic well bill, SB275.
• Went into effect Jan. 1
• Allows a domestic well to produce 2 acre-feet of water a year.
• Allows the state water engineer to assign priority for new domestic wells.
• Allows the state water engineer to require water rights be dedicated to the local county, city or GID, or relinquished to the state, when parcels are split to make smaller parcels.
• Allows counties to create ordinances that comply with the new state law.
• Requires if there is more than one building on a parcel, such as a mother-in-law quarters, and both are served by the same well, that a meter be placed on the well and no more than 2 acre-feet of water be used annually by both residences.
Frequently asked questions
Some commonly asked questions on SB275 are answered by deputy state water engineer Jason King.
Q. How much water is in a water right?
A. "It can be any amount. People apply for water and, depending on what they expect to use, that's what they put in their application and we issue them an amount."
Q. How many water rights does a property owner need to be able to divide his parcel?
A. "There's not a set amount. What the bill does is allow us to go make recommendations to counties if they have hydrographic basins fully appropriated. We can recommend 2 acre-feet for every parcel that is created. That is what is allowed under a domestic well. If they want to parcel that down to two parcels, there can be a relinquishment of 2 acre-feet; either the water right is retired and doesn't go to anyone or it is dedicated to a water purveyor."
Q. Does every lot owner need a water right to drill a well?
A. "Not at all. It's your right to drill a well and use 2 acre-feet a year if your lot cannot be served by a purveyor."
Q. Under what circumstances does a water right holder forfeit a water right?
A. "It has to be a groundwater right. Surface rights can't be forfeited. Only certificated groundwater rights, where you make application, get a permit, put the water to beneficial use and get a certificate. Then if there is five years of nonuse, the right is subject to forfeiture."