Groundwater rights ruling shakes up Nevada during the state’s long drought.

Nevada, like the rest of the American West, is more than twenty years into a megadrought. Climatologists say the area has become much warmer and drier in recent decades than in the centuries before, and at a rate that can only be explained by human-driven climate change. They also predict that weather will continue to become more extreme, wildfires worse and more frequent, and water supplies less sure.

Historically, Nevada has upheld a ‘priority doctrine,’ giving better water rights based on who’s owned their land the longest. In a recent water dispute in Diamond Valley, a Eureka County District Court judge upheld that doctrine. But Thursday June 16, the Nevada Supreme Court overruled that decision, in a ruling that sets all-new precedents for groundwater rights in drought-stricken parts of the state.

Nevada is currently the nation’s poster-child for drought, with Lake Mead and the state’s other reservoirs reaching critically low levels. Mead in particular is the lowest it has been since the Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s. It is already generating less than a quarter of the power it did the last time Lake Mead was considered full, in 2000.

The case in question was in agricultural Diamond Valley, currently designated a Critical Management Area due to depleted groundwater supplies. Generations of agricultural overuse have left the area arid even for Nevada, overuse enabled by the priority doctrine.

“We are of the belief, however, that — given the arid nature of this State — it is particularly important that we effectuate the plain meaning of a statute that encourages the sustainable use of water,” Justice James Hardesty wrote.

Exceptions to the priority doctrine are allowed by the ruling, but will have to approved by engineers and water-users. The court is calling it a ‘community-based’ solution to the long-term water shortages that currently have no predicted end.

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