Steve Friess

Farmers in Nevada look with longing at water that goes to lawns, not crops

In some parts of the drought-ridden state, farmers are getting no water while sprinklers abound in Reno

RENO, Nev. — A sprinkler head had cracked, so water spurted not only into Amanda Beyer’s thriving flowerbeds and lush lawn but also onto the driveway and then into burbling pools in the gutter. Rather than be concerned, Beyer was defiant, offended by anyone pointing out the waste of the region’s most precious resource at a time when farms a few miles away were browning.

“It’s none of your or anybody else’s business,” she said through the screen door as the water continued to gush before she slammed her front door. “We pay our water bills. I’ll get the thing fixed whenever I get around to it. Until then, that’s the way it is.”

As brash as Beyer is about it, she’s also right. As one of 400,000 residents of the Reno-Sparks area, which is mainly served by water that flows from rivers sourced at Lake Tahoe, she’s under no legal obligation to change her approach.

In fact, while the folks at the Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA), which oversees her service, don’t condone or encourage such wanton and brazen waste, they also spent the spring reassuring customers that the extreme drought that has parched swaths of California and Nevada agricultural areas will have minimal impact on urbanites.

“We are fortunate to have a robust supply system of upstream reservoirs and underground reserves available for use during dry years,” a FAQ page on TMWA’s website explained as recently as early June. The missive suggests customers “continue to be diligent in using water,” but the only specific restrictions — and TMWA brass bristle at the use of “restrictions” — are alternating assigned days for watering lawns and a prohibition on daytime watering. In late June, the TMWA added to that a request that as of late July customers shave a few minutes off each cycle as a conservation measure. Further requests may come as the summer progresses, but they’re voluntary.

Ranchers and farmers in the surrounding area, unsurprisingly, are envious and irritated. The distribution of water from the Truckee and Carson rivers is set forth by decades of law and negotiation, but times like this — the third year of a brutal drought — often exacerbate dueling interests of city life and agriculture.

It’s all about planning

Unlike in Northern California, where both farmers and urbanites are being forced to cut back in substantial ways this summer, in these parts the drought’s damage is almost entirely absorbed in rural areas.

The U.S. Bureau of Water Reclamation, who determines water distribution from Tahoe, has dictated that the rural areas get just 45 percent of their normal water allotment this year — meaning the water for agricultural irrigation will be shut off later this month for the year.

A sprinkler nourishes some new grass seed in Reno, Nevada, where despite the drought elsewhere in the state, residents have plenty of water.
Steve Friess

“I’d love it if they would share, but those are long-standing water rights,” said Nathan Wadsworth, an alfalfa farmer in Fallon, about 60 miles east of Reno. “It seems more fair, doesn’t it, that if we’re at 45 percent, they should be at 45 percent? It’s not right. It’s all politics.”

TMWA officials insist it’s actually all about planning. The water from the Truckee River will dry up for everyone this summer, but the utility owns a variety of water rights aside from what it gets from Lake Tahoe and has two key reservoirs, Donner and Independence lakes, that remain full of water stored in years of plenty. These contingencies, which cities in Northern California don’t have, were arranged to provide for Reno-area residents for this very situation.

“I’m sure there is some tension” between the city and the farms, said John Erwin, the TMWA’s director of natural resources planning and management. “Our job is to meet the demands of our customers. That’s why our system is designed the way it is. We design it to meet an eight-year drought cycle, which is somewhat unheard of in planning in the West.”

Those backup plans, Erwin said, were funded by rate payers. So, Erwin said, “The question is, is there anything wrong with asking our customers, ‘Let’s save more water so we can leave more water in the river for someone else to use downstream’? And the next question is, ‘What is the benefit to this community to do that? Who’s going to pay us to do that?”

Water flows toward money

Still, there are calls — albeit wistful, doubtful ones — for someone to do something. In January, as it became clear that the lack of snowfall foretold a miserable summer ahead for farmers, fourth-generation rancher J.J. Goicoechea said it’s troubling to see urbanites going on as usual while crops die, cattle herds are thinned out, ranchers go bankrupt and wildfire dangers surge.

“As farmers and ranchers are going under, people in Reno will still be able to wash their cars, and the fountains will still go on in town,” said Goicoechea, 39, a county commissioner in Elko County. “We should all be in this together.”

Erwin said Goicoechea’s remarks were baffling because the farmers in Elko County, in northeastern Nevada, get their water — or don’t, as is the case this year — from an entirely different system. But Wadsworth, the Fallon farmer who could benefit if Reno allowed the use of extra water for irrigation to prolong the growing season, sounded a similar complaint.

“Here’s the way it works with the water. The farmers are on the bottom of the spectrum,” he groused as he rode a pickup truck across his family’s 500-acre spread. “So Reno, the Indians, everybody else gets their water before we do. We don’t have much power to fight it.”

Or as climatologist Kelly Redmond of the Desert Research Institute in Reno put it, “There’s a saying in the West. Water flows towards gravity, and it flows towards money.”

Use it or lose it

Perhaps, but water policy experts say the real force here is history. Many of the West’s water distribution arrangements were made decades or even a century ago, when high-desert agriculture was a sidekick industry to the region’s mining interests and then growing cities. One tenet of water rights throughout the American West is use it or lose it, so not using the water you get — even if it means helping out other regions in times of crisis — is an invitation for a federal court or water overseer to consider redistributing it permanently.

The cries from northern Nevada farmers to reconsider the arrangements are, intriguingly, mirror those from the southern metropolis of Las Vegas. The Vegas region, now at about 2 million residents, is largely locked into a limit of water it can take from the Colorado River that was set in 1922, when about 5,000 people lived in the area. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has controversially spent billions building pipelines and buying groundwater rights, all the while complaining that farmers in Southern California, who receive a larger allotment, are wasting huge amounts of Colorado River water with inefficient irrigation methods.

“These are classic Western water stories,” Redmond said. “The miners were first, and that’s what the water laws are based on — first in time, first in rights. The 19th century is still governing the Western water law even in the 21st century.”

Nonetheless, Erwin is well aware of the lousy image it projects to have Reno residents frolicking while the rest of the region is so thirsty. The TMWA’s obligation, though, is to its customers.

“I get it — shouldn’t we all be suffering?” he said. “Our system was designed to avoid that kind of suffering. We don’t want to go to more severe rationing unless we really had to.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Drought USA

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter