Churchill commission chair warns Douglas about federal intervention |

Churchill commission chair warns Douglas about federal intervention

by Christy Chalmers, staff writer

Gwen Washburn could talk all night about the problems federal intervention has brought to Churchill County.

There are the ranchers who must defend every move they make involving their water rights. There’s the more than $200,000 the county spends in court each year. There are what Washburn portrays as broken promises that left the county with barren, weedy patches of once-productive farm land instead of the lush, publicly-held attractions that were touted.

“Government intervention does nothing but jeapordize your property,” said Washburn, who chairs the Churchill County commission. “Government intervention does nothing but jeapordize your local economy.”

Washburn’s remarks were made at the Douglas County Building Industry Association’s monthly dinner Wednesday night.

While Washburn mentioned Douglas County’s ballot question No. 1, which proposes a quarter-cent sales tax hike to help preserve open space, she emphasized she wasn’t making a statement on it.

But she did tell the building group’s members to be wary of any program, especially federal ones, that means giving up control of private property. The connection to the sales tax question is that its proceeds could be used to buy development rights from ranchers or fund other programs aimed at preserving Douglas County’s undeveloped land, which in turn could mean perpetual limits on use of the land that could be enforced by federal or other groups.

Churchill County has become ground zero for a water fight that pits federally-backed agencies and groups like the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe against ranchers who have traditionally relied on the Carson and Truckee rivers for their irrigation supplies.

Washburn said she and other ranchers must defend their water rights from federal lawyers who regularly haul them into court. The disputes are driven by federal decrees on water use.

“It’s perpetrated by the government and their attorneys,” Washburn said.

She said the federal agencies now want 1.5 million acre-feet of water back, which would destroy Churchill’s agricultural industry.

Some water rights have been sold to the feds, with mixed results. Washburn said the county has experienced a “checkerboard” effect in which water is moved elsewhere, leaving a dry, dusty space that grows weeds and devalues adjacent properties.

Washburn cautioned her audience about land exchanges. She said some Churchill County farms were bought with promises they would be open to the public and the water used to maintain the land.

Instead, said Washburn, the water rights were stripped and the land was sold to a private developer who then traded it for land in Clark County.

“They made great promises. Nothing has ever happened,” said Washburn.

The lesson for Douglas County, Washburn said, is to weigh all potential impacts before agreeing to any program that gives the federal government authority or diminishes a property owner’s control.

“Protect the existing Nevada water laws,” she said. “Avoid getting into any land exchange that might let the federal government or an environmental group encroach on your water rights.”