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Nevada Farmers Fight Water Restrictions

YERINGTON, Nev. (CN) - Farmers in western Nevada challenged a state order demanding they cut their groundwater pumping by half.

Facing severe drought, Nevada's State Engineer in February issued Order 1250 for water curtailment.

Drought and excessive groundwater pumping have led to some of the lowest groundwater levels on record. Since 2011, groundwater levels in Mason Valley have dropped by nearly 30 feet and dropped by nearly 40 feet in Smith Valley.

Mason and Smith Valleys are in Lyon County, where the lawsuit was filed, and in adjacent counties. Most of Nevada is horst and graben mountain ranges, whose valleys are sinking and peaks are rising. The ranges run roughly north and south, the peaks separated by about 20 miles.

Rainfall replenishes the aquifers under the valleys, but farmers, ranchers and cities are pumping it out far faster.

The "perennial yield" of Mason Valley is about 25,000 acre-feet, the State Engineer's order says, but rights to more than 149,000 acre-feet a year have been issued. Of that 119,198 acre-feet were approved for irrigation - 100,000 acre-feet of it designated as supplemental water rights.

"The groundwater resources of Mason Valley and Smith Valley are being depleted at an alarming rate and it is essential for the welfare of the areas involved that immediate action be initiated to protect the groundwater resources and water rights in these hydrographic basins," the order states.

The Order aims to conserve the Walker River system and reduce the excessive use of supplemental groundwater by limiting groundwater use to 50 percent for farmers in Mason Valley and Smith Valley.

The plaintiffs, Farmers Against Curtailment Order LLC, claim the order violates the rights to water that some have had since the late 1940s.

They seek judicial review of the order, claiming it will damage them and devalue their property.

"The State Engineer made several errors in his order and list of water rights to be curtailed, including the decision to not order curtailment of non-supplemental rights or partially supplemental rights," the farmers group claims. "The State Engineer applied arbitrary and capricious rational on his explanations for curtailment and in his selection of water rights to curtail."

The Nevada Farm Bureau Federation backs the farmers.

"For Lyon County President and farmer Darrel Pursel, the curtailment will more than likely limit him to farming less than 50 percent of his operation," the Farm Bureau Federation said in an undated statement.

"Pursel's operation is 160 acres, but his well is only permitted to pump for 121 acres, meaning he and some other farmers in the area will farm less than half of their land this irrigation season," the Farm Bureau Federation said.

Similar concerns have been expressed throughout the state. John Bosta and Frank Maurizio, farmers from Nye County, have filed a class action, claiming the order violates their property rights. Bosta and Maurizio filed their complaint pro se.

In the Farmers Against Curtailment lawsuit, the farmers said: "The State Engineer provided no legal justification or need for the curtailment. The petitioner's members were not provided a fair opportunity to hear or present evidence regarding this matter."

The State Engineer's Office held meetings with Lyon County farmers before issuing the order.

At those meetings, "Concerns were expressed about not having enough water to grow crops," said JoAnn Kittrell, with the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.

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