Nevada groundwater rights buyouts face challenges

Time and money are running short for Nevada groundwater rights program.
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  • Nevada landowners sell water rights to address over-pumped aquifers.
  • Federal funds fuel buyouts, but time and money are limited.
  • Program prioritizes purchase of actively used water rights.
  • State officials consider a permanent water rights retirement program.

April 2, 2024 — Nevada is facing a groundwater crisis as drought and overuse lead to shrinking aquifers. In response, landowners are selling water rights through a federally funded program. The Nevada Water Conservation and Infrastructure Initiative (NWCII)Opens in a new tab. offers grants to buy and retire water rights in over-pumped basins.

The program targets areas where water rights exceed available supply. Landowners in nine Nevada counties are eligible. With $15 million in funding, the program has seen strong interest from sellers. However, regulators must use the funds by September 2024 or lose them.

The success of the limited program has spurred calls for its expansion. While some argue it doesn’t directly address basins where rights aren’t actively used, officials say it prevents future problems and makes an immediate impact where water has been pumped.

Key Provisions of the Nevada Water Conservation and Infrastructure Initiative:

  • Funding: $100 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA)
  • Eligible Projects: Water conservation, drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, irrigation, and more.
  • Water Rights Retirement: Up to $25 million to buy and retire groundwater rights.

More willing water rights sellers in NV than money, say water regulators.

by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current
March 26, 2024

Landowners in Nevada have been more than willing to surrender their groundwater rights in exchange for cash payments thanks to a water conservation program financed by the federal government, said state water regulators — but time and money are running outOpens in a new tab..

Lack of storage infrastructure, drought, and warming trends have led to long-term over-pumping of groundwater basins in northern and central Nevada.

Throughout the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority region — an agency created to proactively address water resource issues in the region — there are 25 over-appropriated groundwater basins, eight of which are also over-pumped.

An over-pumped basin is one that is pumped at a greater rate than it is replenished. For example, Humboldt County in northern Nevada has nearly 760,000 acre-feet of committed groundwater rights, but only about 469,000 acre-feet of water is actually available any given year without depleting the groundwater reservoir. Antelope Valley and the Middle Reese River Valley in Humboldt County have shown “sharply declining groundwater levels,” said Jeff Fontaine, the executive director of the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority and the Humboldt River Basin Water Authority.

“There’s no doubt that groundwater pumping in the Humboldt Basin has affected surface flows,” said Fontaine during a meeting of the Interim Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Public Lands last week.

Eureka’s Diamond Valley, a small farming community in central Nevada, is the state’s only “critical management area,” as designated by the Nevada State Water Engineer. The designation means the valley’s groundwater levels are rapidly declining, and groundwater rights holders in the area are required to create a plan to address over-pumping or risk losing their rights.

The Voluntary Water Rights Retirement Program received $15 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding in 2022 to address groundwater conflicts by purchasing groundwater rights from private landowners in over-pumped and over-appropriated basins in northern and central Nevada communities.

The program is only available for landowners in Churchill, Elko, Esmeralda, Eureka, Humboldt, Lander, Nye, Pershing and White Pine counties.

So far, 13 applicants have volunteered to sell their water rights under the program, said Fontaine. Five applicants in the Humboldt Basin have agreed to sell a total of 12,887 acre-feet of water rights for a total cost of $11.6M. In Diamond Valley, eight applicants have agreed to sell 11,895 acre-feet of groundwater rights for a total cost of $10.4M.

“We’re working with each of the applicants to purchase and retire water rights until we run out of money and we have until September of this year to complete the program,” said Fontaine.

If state water regulators do not use the federal funding by the September 30 deadline, the program will lose that funding. Fontaine assured state lawmakers during a recent meeting of the Interim Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Public Landst that the program is on track to meet the deadline.

“We weren’t sure we were gonna be able to get enough willing sellers,” said Fontaine. “But we have plenty of willing sellers. We have more willing sellers than we have money.”

Fontaine urged lawmakers to establish a statewide voluntary water rights retirement program based on the success of the limited program currently available for central and northern Nevada.

Throughout several parts of Nevada, significantly more groundwater is extracted than is returned to aquifers each year, leading to declining groundwater and flows statewide. Nevada has committed water rights for 1.5 times the approximately 2 million acre-feet of available groundwater. About 56 of the state’s water basins are currently over-pumped, according to the Legislative Counsel Bureau’s Research Division.

Republican Nevada State Senator Pete Goicoechea sponsored a bill in 2023 that would have created a statewide program to buy and retire water rights. But the legislation never made it to the floor for a vote.

During the Subcommittee on Public Lands meeting, Goicoechea expressed concern that current program funding was being used to buy water rights that are not actively being used, which would do little to address the shrinking aquifers in northern and central Nevada.

Fontaine conceded that not all the purchased water rights were actively being used, but the application process was designed to weed out water rights sellers who have not pumped over the last five years.

“At the end of the day, it’s been my experience, at least for this program, very few water right holders are pumping,” Fontaine said. “We are undoubtedly purchasing water that hasn’t been pumped. But we are purchasing valid water rights. So for the water we are purchasing that has been pumped, we’re making an immediate impact on the basin. For those water rights that haven’t been pumped, we’re preventing future problems.”

Editor note: A previous version of this article said the Voluntary Water Rights Retirement Program received $50 million in federal funding, but was corrected to the actual amount of $15 million.

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.



Since 1995, Deborah has owned and operated LegalTech LLC with a focus on water rights. Before moving to Arizona in 1986, she worked as a quality control analyst for Honeywell and in commercial real estate, both in Texas. She learned about Arizona's water rights from the late and great attorney Michael Brophy of Ryley, Carlock & Applewhite. Her side interests are writing (and reading), Wordpress programming and much more.

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