Las Vegas Business Press


August 6, 1990


SECTION: Vol 7; No 15; Sec 1; pg 1


LENGTH: 1062 words


HEADLINE: State Engineer Controls Fate of LV Water, Growth


BYLINE: Rick Healy





Pity Mike Turnipseed.


It took him "quite a while" to get throughcollege.


He entered his profession almost against his will.


He's seriously understaffed for the work he oversees.


And, now, as Nevada's state engineer, he's saddled withthe burden of having to make decisions so important to the state's economic andenvironmental future -- and so contentious -- that no matter how fair orjustified those decisions might be, he could very well become some kind ofvillain among masses of people throughout the West.


Probably no other Nevada official today, elected orotherwise, has a greater say in the just how far this state's urbandevelopment, economic growth and wildlife preservation efforts will go --because no other official here has as much power to approve or destroy the LasVegas Valley Water District's controversial bid to pump hundreds of thousandsof acre feet of unclaimed groundwater from rural regions of the state toSouthern Nevada's booming metropolitan areas.


"I suspected that this was coming even before Ibecame state engineer (in February, 1990)" confides Turnipseed, a46-year-old amateur photographer and fisherman who "just couldn'tstand" the hydrology jobs he pursued while studying engineering at UtahState University in Logan. But after graduating in 1972, he worked with thewater departments of Utah and Idaho, and built up an affinity for his fieldbefore coming to Nevada five years ago.


Turnipseed's suspicions about the great and terrible taskthat awaited him as state engineer were first aroused, he says, around October,1989. It was then that rumors emerged about a "massive block offilings" that Las Vegas would submit for unappropriated water throughoutthe state.


The 146 applications that eventually arrived at his CarsonCity office in the fall of 1989 were massive indeed; they accounted for 865,000acre-feet of subsurface water in Nye, Lincoln, White Pine and northern ClarkCounties -- roughly half of all the untapped reserves in the state.


The plan, described by its supporters as a "brilliant"way to sustain Southern Nevada's economically vital urban expansion well intothe 21st Century, released a flood of anger in its wake. Nearly, 3,000 formalprotests filed thus far with Turnipseed's office by government wildlifeagencies, rural county and city officials and hundreds of ranchers,conservationists and businesses have made it the most contested water requestin Nevada history.


"It's beginning to look like we could have 4000 to5000 protests (by the August 11 deadline), which is hard for us tohandle," says Turnipseed. "We typically take about 100 applicationsper month." His seasonally fluctuating crew of up to 75 people, whichroutinely inspects hundreds of mostly earthen dams spread out across the state,is not able staff up because of budgetary restraints.


Adding to the workload, says Turnipseed, are the press andother interested parties who devour about "half of our staff time"with questions about the project. Many of the visitors are incumbent oraspiring elected officials from the rural counties. They're "vehementlyopposed" to the plan, says Turnipseed, but also eager to "become moreinformed on the issues."


Surprisingly, Clark County politicos have never"visited or talked" with him, he says.


Sitting in the center of a maelstrom of controversydoesn't, in truth, seem to have sucked Turnipseed into the depths ofdespondency. He admits that he does "lose a little sleep" over theissues he faces, but he remains noticeably upbeat when talking about hisdepartment and duties and appears happily inclined to keep the issues beforehim at a comfortably distant perspective.


"I've read a few of (the protests)," he says."They're fairly general in the fears that they'll be drying up the basins.But I haven't done a lot of research as to whether the project is viable ornot. I've maintained some kind of insulation from it, and I will until I haveto become involved in the hearing process."


The decisions he makes, he adds, will rely "a greatdeal on the evidence presented at the hearings."


Those hearings will be held sometime this fall. Eachapplication will be considered one by one. Some cases could be extremelytechnical and take "several months" to decide, but the law, notes Turnipseed,"is very specific on guidelines we have to follow. We have to make threefindings in order to approve (an application)."


Those findings must consider the source of theunappropriated water, whether the appropriation would interfere with anyexisting rights, and whether the appropriation is "in the publicinterest."


That last consideration is the "catch-all," saysTurnipseed. Urban and municipal claims for water enjoy the "highest usepriority," while agriculture gets the lowest. "But wildlife doesn'tconsume a lot," he quickly adds, "so they're usually on the highest,too." Deciding which of these uses is truly in the "best publicinterest" is not going to be easy, particularly when bonafide publicinterests can clash.


"Nevada law is something we feel comfortable withadministering," says Turnipseed, "but we don't want to be in theland-use or growth-management business."


It's too early for Turnipseed to predict if enough ofClark County's applications will survive to make its plan viable. But he's surethat if the project goes through, that it will, as rural county dwellers fear,rob them of some future growth.


Turnipseed doesn't find much validity in the frighteningcomparisons often made between Southern Nevada's water bid and SouthernCalifornia's environmentally disastrous Owens Valley water project. Nevada'slong-standing groundwater law protects against that kind of wasteland creation,he says. But he seems a little bothered by the Las Vegas Valley WaterDistrict's vagueness as to just how much initial "water mining" itintends to do in lower basins.


"We're sort of getting mixed signals in thatregard," he says.


Turnipseed acknowledges that the water application rulingshe renders are almost certain to make some people extremely unhappy, but heremarks that his decisions are appealable in district court and that appeals do"happen a lot"


But legal assistance from the attorney general's officeand "extensive findings in preparing" water rulings have given hisbranch a "pretty good success rate," he adds.