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Laws & Legislation

Protecting Groundwater Through Legislation

LVGMP-web-ed-foster1It takes thousands of years for the snowmelt and rain in the nearby Spring Mountains to seep deep beneath the earth’s layers and flow into our valley’s groundwater basin. With the growth in Southern Nevada, residents of the community have been using more groundwater each year than nature can replenish. In the mid-1990s, the time had come to protect this valuable water resource.

After the 1995 Nevada Legislature requested public input on the groundwater situation in the Las Vegas Valley, a citizen’s committee was formed and began meeting to discuss issues of concern to groundwater users.

The committee of well users and concerned citizens, who depended upon groundwater, drafted the legislation. The legislation was introduced as Assembly Bill 436 at the 1997 Nevada Legislature.

Following several public hearings, both houses of the Nevada Legislature passed the bill and the Governor signed it into law on July 16, 1997.

The law directed the Southern Nevada Water Authority  (SNWA) to implement and manage a Las Vegas Valley Groundwater Management Program. It also established a nine-member Advisory Committee for Groundwater Management to provide input to the SNWA on potential groundwater activities.

Between 1997 and 1999, the program conducted several technical activities, including a major inventory of the wells in the Las Vegas Valley. The advisory committee held four public workshops with well users and developed additional recommendations for the program. These recommendations were submitted in a report to the 1999 Nevada Legislature.

The report led directly and indirectly to the passage of four groundwater bills benefiting well users in the Las Vegas Valley:

Assembly Bill
Authorizes grants for certain costs associated with connections to municipal water systems and for certain improvements to conserve water.
Makes various changes to statutory provisions relating to Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Revises provisions relating to appropriation of water and revises method for calculating certain charge for water.
Provides for management of groundwater in Las Vegas Valley Ground Water Basin.

Nevada Water Law

Priority dates affect the allocation of water.

Let’s pretend our groundwater basin is a large bucket that contains 10 gallons of water. Two people want to use the water and each has a water right:

  • Party A has a right to eight gallons of water with a priority date of 1925.
  • Party B has a right to six gallons of water with a priority date of 1950.

Under the prior appropriation system, Party A has the right to withdraw its eight gallons of water first, leaving whatever is left to Party B because Party A’s right has an earlier priority date.

Party A maintains its priority to the eight gallons unless it fails to use the water for five consecutive years. If the water withdrawals cause impacts on the other water right holder, the younger right (also known as a junior right) can be reduced or canceled.

Consequently, priority dates are very important for all water rights. Under Nevada water law, if a party fails to use all or a portion of its water for five consecutive years, the Office of the State Engineer may require forfeiture of the underlying right to the water.

Las Vegas Valley Water Law

The Las Vegas groundwater basin is the most comprehensively managed basin in Nevada – and with good reason. The basin has been over-appropriated for almost 50 years.

In 1941, the Office of the State Engineer used provisions of the Nevada Underground Water Act of 1939 to designate a portion of the Las Vegas Valley as an underground artesian water basin. This designated area was extended in 1944 and 1946, and a portion of the basin was closed to new irrigation rights in 1949, effectively halting growth. To accommodate the demand for growth, legislation was passed in 1955 that enabled the Office of the State Engineer to issue temporary permits for water, also known as revocable permits.

Temporary or Revocable Permits

Although the continued demand for water was greater than the supply of groundwater in the Las Vegas basin, state officials knew that the Las Vegas Valley eventually would have access to surface water from the Colorado River and Lake Mead, once facilities were built to move that water. Consequently, temporary permits were issued with the understanding that the permit holders would use groundwater until the time when their properties could be served with Lake Mead water from a municipal purveyor.

In the decades since that time, the Office of the State Engineer has issued a series of orders to restrict the issuance of revocable water permits within the Las Vegas Valley.  These orders culminated with the issuance of Amended Order 1054 in April 1992. Under this order, with rare exception, all applications to appropriate water filed after March 23, 1992, will be denied.

Currently, there are three basic types of groundwater rights or permits in the Las Vegas groundwater basin: vested, non-revocable, and revocable. These rights or permits are managed and administered by the Office of the State Engineer.

  • Vested – To be determined valid for a vested right, a well must have been in existence and beneficially using groundwater from an artesian or definable aquifer before March 22, 1913, or from a percolating aquifer before March 25, 1939.
  • Nonrevocable – Nonrevocable water permits have a priority date before March 24, 1955. As indicated by their name, nonrevocable water permits cannot be revoked.  However, they are subject to forfeiture and abandonment as outlined in NRS 534.090.
  • Revocable – A revocable permit has a priority date on or after March 24, 1955 and is subject to revocation if and when water can be furnished by an entity such as a water district or municipality.  Most community wells in the Las Vegas Valley have this type of groundwater permit.

When are permits revoked?
Under legislation passed in 1999, the Office of the State Engineer cannot revoke a temporary or revocable permit unless all three of the following conditions occur:

  • A municipal water line is within 180 feet of the permit’s place of use.
  • The well fails and requires work that involves a drilling rig.
  • Financial assistance is provided to the well user to help pay for the cost of connection.

Nevada State Engineer

The Office of the State Engineer was created in 1903 to protect existing water rights and to bring about a better method for using our valuable water resources. The state engineer is responsible for administering and enforcing Nevada water law, which includes the adjudication and appropriation of groundwater in the state.

Carson City Office Las Vegas Office
Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources
Division of Water Resources
901 South Stewart St. Suite 2002
Carson City, NV 89701
(775) 684-2800 – phone
(775) 684-2811 – fax
Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources
Division of Water Resources, Las Vegas Office
400 Shadow Lane, Suite 201
Las Vegas, NV  89106
(702) 486-2770 – phone
(702) 486-2781 – fax