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Wicked, Wicked Watering

Senator’s Fight with the
Navy Has Fallon Worried

by Brooks Wallace

n September Harry Reid told the AFL-CIO that he has a long memory. “Just ask some people who have had dealings with me,” he said. Ask the people of Fallon and they’ll say that, where they are concerned, they just wish Reid would develop a strong case of amnesia.

The case in point, as usual with Senator Reid, concerns the Newlands Project.

The nation’s first reclamation project, the project opened in 1902—an era devoted to opening up the West and developing a strong resource-based economy. The government was advertising “Irrigated Homestead Lands” with a “permanent and assured” water supply. Water rights were bought and sold at $60 per acre and held as real property. Eventually, roughly 70,000 acres were under cultivation. In the 1950s, when the Navy bought 3,000 acres around the perimeter of its Fallon Naval Air Station, the land had already been farmed since the early 1900s.

The NAS Green Belt

The Naval Air Station (NAS) is the premier training facility and home of the Top Gun school for naval aviators. The surrounding farmland was purchased to ensure the safety of pilots, the public and the military’s expensive taxpayer-owned airplanes.

Such green belts are standard buffer zones around military air bases, says Anne McMillin, the NAS public affairs officer. The belts guard against fires and prevent foreign objects from “blowing with the wind out on the airfield and getting sucked up into an engine,” she says. Those objects could be anything “from a paper cup, to a bolt, to a weed.”

While the air station’s green belt sounds uncontroversial—a good way to protect young American pilots and decrease risks to the public and the public’s property—Senator Reid wants it removed.

His complaint is that the belt is leased to Fallon farmers and irrigated with Newlands Project water rights the Navy purchased along with the land. In Reid’s view, those water rights should be turned over to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian tribe.

The Navy has cooperated with Reid—up to a point. Further reduction of the green belt, say Navy representatives, would compromise safety. The service cites several studies showing that foreign object damage (FOD in military jargon) would go up if the green belt is removed. Reid, though, makes it clear he does not take seriously the alleged risks to pilots, the public and the taxpayers’ aircraft.

“Experienced military aviators,” the senator said in the Lahontan Valley News—Reid himself has never served in the military—have told him that greenbelts are “marginal to airport safety” and that few airports have them. Reid noted that McCarran Airport in Las Vegas lacks an irrigated greenbelt and pointed out that McCarran’s traffic is much heavier than Fallon’s.

The rejoinder from the Navy was that McCarran is surrounded by the city of Las Vegas, which performs the same FOD-reducing function. The Navy also notes that recommended practice for airports has long been to have an Accident Potential Zone (APZ) where the land is to be managed for the safety and protection of people under the flight path. And in these zones the recommended land uses are agriculture and open space.

Lots of Navy Green Belts

While Reid continues to act as though there is something wicked about the NAS green belt, the station’s public affairs people note that the Fallon agricultural outlease program is paralleled by many others around the West. Listed by the Navy are three examples in California—the Naval Weapons Station in Concord, the Naval Air Station at Crows Landing and the Naval Air Station in Lemoore—and one in Washington state—the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island.

But Reid insists on seeing the Naval air station buffer zone entirely in the context of his decade-long fight to demolish the Newlands Project. That historic project—now the foundation in many key ways of the Lahontan Valley economy and community—has been publicly declared by Reid a “mistake.” For the past 10 years, using all the tools available to him within federal government, Reid has worked methodically to pick the project apart.

His chief means has been legislation, especially Public Law 101-618—the bill that Reid pushed through Congress in 1990. Sometimes known in Northern Nevada as “Senator Reid’s Negotiated Settlement,” the law in essence pitted well-funded and professionally represented upstream interests—primarily Sierra Pacific Power, the Pyramid Lake Indian Tribe, Washoe County and the Cities of Reno and Sparks—against the small Fallon and Fernley communities.

Reid’s law is also the starting point for the senator’s current tussle with the Department of Defense. Included in its provisions, along with many other assaults on Newlands Project water rights, was a directive to the Secretary of the Navy to undertake a study regarding the NAS green belt. The Secretary, said Reid’s legislation, should develop a plan to “achieve dust control, fire abatement and safety, and foreign object damage control … in a manner that, to the maximum extent practicable, reduces direct surface deliveries of water.” Any water saved by these measures was then to be divested by the Secretary of the Navy and passed to the Secretary of Interior, to be managed to benefit both Pyramid Lake and the Lahontan Valley wetlands.

In compliance with the law, the Navy did conduct such a study, and has to date divested itself of almost 40 percent of the water that had been going to irrigate and support the NAS green belt.

But Nevada’s senior senator has not been satisfied. Despite the Navy’s judgment that more reduction of the green belt would be dangerous to its pilots, the public and the expensive taxpayer-owned planes and equipment, Reid has been obdurate. And his campaign—waged on multiple fronts—has not been pretty.

A favorite Reid ploy has been to repeatedly accuse the Navy of breaking the law. Since that, if true, would, make any official so convicted subject to heavy sanctions, Reid implicitly  is threatening the destruction of the careers of service personnel.

“I want to find out why they [Navy officials] haven’t met their original commitment,” Reid told the Associated Press in April. At the time he was announcing a request that the General Accounting Office audit the Navy installation in Fallon. Reid wanted the GAO—the investigative arm of Congress—to “investigate whether [the Navy] is currently in compliance” with his law.

Reid, wrote the AP, was “especially concerned about the irrigation of greenbelts on the base he says are supposed to be reverting to traditional high desert land.”

Though Reid clearly assumed the GAO findings would go against the Navy, he was wrong.  The findings to this point have, in fact, gone against Reid and his public insinuations.

The GAO preliminary report found that the Navy was in compliance with all directives in law—as well as a 1995 memo of understanding with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Regarding the green belt, the GAO found that total average annual water consumption had indeed been reduced 40 percent—from 2,934 water-righted acres to only 1,914 acres in the 1998 irrigation season. The final GAO report is to be issued by the end of this year.

‘You have to give it up’

Foiled in one avenue, Reid has tried another—using as leverage the Navy’s desire for more Central Nevada land and airspace. The senator told a Senate panel in April that he would oppose the expansion of the Fallon base’s flight training area unless the Navy gave up more of the greenbelt’s irrigation water.

“I said I wanted something in return and everybody said there is no land to give up,” he told a reporter. “The water is something they have to give up.”

Reid also has used his legislative position to whipsaw the Naval Air Station.

In May the senator said he was going to recommend to the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, on which he sits, that it fund the construction of a $7 million hangar at the Fallon air base. But when the appropriations bill came out, the $7 million was nowhere to be found. Instead the language in the bill—eventually signed by President Clinton Oct. 4—requires the Navy to “limit water rights to the maximum extent practicable, consistent with safety of operations,… currently not more than 4,402 acre-feet of water per year.”

Because the water needed to keep the air station’s green belt alive is some 3.5 feet per acre, this newest diktat from Reid means the Navy can only water 1,257 acres of the 3,000 it owns.

“Last year I was concerned about the slowness in which they were moving to give up their water, so I put language in an appropriations bill for them to do it,” Reid told the Associated Press.

The Navy now finds itself without the much-needed hangar because it did not cave in to the senator’s demands. Further, the service has to give up more water and shrink the green belt more than it deemed safe.

If Reid’s behavior regarding the NAS green belt seems increasingly bizarre, consider the quality of arguments he has been giving the media.

Saving Taxpayer Dollars
“At Taxpayer Expense”

In May, when asking the GAO to investigate how the air station was using its water, the senator said that “the Navy, using clean surface water, has created an artificial agricultural oasis in the middle of the desert which it uses to make money through grazing leases. And all at taxpayer expense.”

But the reality is that the green belt leases help the Navy save taxpayers’ money. Were the Navy itself to maintain the buffer acreage to control foreign object damage, it would need to hire a contractor at substantial public expense. (And even then that contractor, to keep down wind-borne debris, would probably have to plant the area with vegetation.) What bugs the senator so much about the green belt, say some long-time Reid-watchers, is simply that it keeps demonstrating the Newlands Project’s continuing economic viability.

Another hole in the senator’s talk about “taxpayer expense” is his own agenda for the Navy green belt. It has largely been written in red ink. Navy compliance with P.L. 101-618 has to date cost approximately $1.5 million. Further water conservation projects for the greenbelt are to cost another $2.5 million.

Something also is off-center in Reid’s complaint that “the Navy … has created an artificial agricultural oasis in the middle of the desert.” Characteristically for the senator, the statement ignores the individual farm families—the people who pay the leases, buy the seeds, plow the dirt, cut and bale the hay and then hopefully feed it to their cows all winter. It also totally ignores the whole history of this particular “artificial agricultural oasis in the middle of the desert”—the fact that it was the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, not the Navy, that “created” farming in the Nevada desert. And at that time the BOR was acting very similar, in many ways, to the federal agencies that currently carrying out Reid’s agenda in the Lahontan Valley. In the early 1900s, however, the agencies were implementing the conceits of another Democratic U.S. senator from Nevada—Francis G. Newlands.

For his part, Reid seems increasingly unable to conceal something very like fanaticism. The senator shakes and shudders as if an “artificial agricultural oasis in the middle of the desert” were a horror that must be eradicated, no matter how many Nevada families now depend upon it. His is a premise that would require 90 percent of Las Vegas and most of the cities of the American Southwest to be removed from the map. While many environmental extremists want to make large areas of the American West “human-free,” it is rare to see such misanthropy so close to the surface in an elected politician.

Fallon folks side with the Navy

Most Fallon residents appear to see Reid’s insistence that the green belt around the NAS revert to barren desert as simple payback from a powerful and notoriously vindictive politician. In this view, Reid is still resentful that Lahontan Valley citizens have tried to resist his plans for their lives.

In this frame of reference, Churchill County residents are cheering on the Navy, seeing it in a much stronger position vis--vis Reid than some of the unfortunate Fallon farmers who, under federal pressures, had to sell their water rights to avoid financial ruin.

First, as the GAO probe showed, the service has indeed been following the law. Second, Navy lawyers get their pay from the same federal apparatus that employs the lawyers fielded by Bruce Babbitt’s Department of Interior. So the old DOI tactic of running up court costs won’t work as well in this case as it has on the small farmers who need their water to make a living. For average people in the Lahontan Valley, it’s satisfying to at last see someone in the community able to stand up to Reid—even if the someone turns out to be a branch of the U.S. military.

But there is evidence that Reid has bigger goals in mind than mere payback for past slights. The ambition that has fueled Reid all his life clearly still burns and burns hot. At this stage of his life, however, the form it takes is the question of legacy—the ultimate significance of Reid’s career as a public figure. That question, as interpreted by the senator, is why the people of Churchill County still have good reason to fear.

From all indications, the ideas that have driven Reid for the last 11-plus years can be expressed as two propositions:

1) The Newlands Project was a very serious mistake, and

2) It is exceedingly important that it now, almost a 100 years later, be totally reversed.

To the degree that Reid holds these two propositions to be the case, the importance of what he is doing, and thus the magnitude of his legacy (as he interprets it) has to rise.

From all available evidence, Reid believes what he is up to is very, very very important. It would follow, therefore, that Reid’s estimate of the magnitude of his legacy must be correspondingly high.

This could explain something Churchill County residents have long wondered about—why Nevada’s senior senator has for so many years appeared utterly indifferent to the impact erasing the Newlands Project is having—and will have—on some 30,000 of his own constituents.

The answer would appear to be that to the degree that Reid can see his goals as far more important than the well-being of a mere 30,000 Nevadans, to that degree the value of his legacy rises. It’s the old “you have to break eggs to make omelets” hubris—if you have amassed enough power to do the breaking, then you’re a giant and other human beings are mere “eggs.”

Does anything lend credence to such harsh speculation? Unfortunately, yes—an implicit contradiction embedded in P. L. 101-618 that has never received much public scrutiny.

Reid’s law says water reclaimed from water rights purchased from “willing sellers” in the Newlands Project is to go both to Pyramid Lake and to the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, north and east of Fallon. But Reid’s original legislative intentions for that provision were different, say sources knowledgeable about the drafting of P.L. 101-618. Reid himself, so goes the account, wanted all the water to go back to Pyramid—a complete reversal of the Newlands Project. The provision allocating at least some of the water to Stillwater was forced on Reid by environmentalist allies he  needed to bring Eastern senators on board the effort to pass his bill.

But under Reid’s preferred scenario, the Stillwater National Refuge—where hundreds of thousands of migrating birds inspire birdwatchers and Ducks Unlimited members—could virtually dry up. This could happen because the water that sustains the Stillwater marshes is in part the surface water that comes in from the Truckee River through  Derby Dam as part of the Newlands Project allotment. No Truckee water, no Stillwater to speak of. The implacable, cold-eyed radicalism is arresting.

This line of argument would suggest that the curiosities of Reid’s behavior over the Air Station green belt result not just from pique, but from a long-standing intention, apparently still fierce, to insure that all Truckee water is eventually returned to Pyramid Lake. But that goal, achieved, could destroy the Fallon community.

Reid's Looming Legacy:
A Dead Community

The reasons have to do with the aquifer upon which the Navy, the City of Fallon and well owners throughout the county depend for their drinking water. According to a water study released in 1994 by the U.S. Geological Service, that aquifer is directly affected by the amount of surface water that flows through the Lahontan Valley. This means it is the Newlands Project irrigation canals, including those that serve the Navy’s water rights, that directly recharge the valley’s drinking water.

Take away water flowing through the irrigation system, and one takes away the source that replenishes the Lahontan Valley aquifer. A lower water table means that Fallon’s long-standing problem of native arsenic in the soil becomes much bigger. Implementing the EPA’s mantra—”dilution is the solution to pollution”—becomes impossible. Lahontan Valley drinking water could easily become too highly concentrated with arsenic.

Thus, Reid’s goal of removing Truckee River water from the Newlands Project will not only seriously impact the Lahontan Valley’s farms but even its drinking water. This means a major hit on not only the first leg of the Fallon economy—farming—but also its second leg—the viability of Naval Air Station. How long, then, can the community survive?

In Churchill County, Reid is sometimes accused of wanting his legacy to be barren wind-blown desert where once were thriving green farms. To the ears of outsiders, the charge sounds like overheated hyperbole. But for decades the acknowledged goal of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s lawyers has been to reverse history by demolishing Derby Dam and erasing the original Newlands Project from the face of the earth. Increasingly, evidence suggests that Nevada’s senior senator has long shared that goal.

Reid says he has a long memory, but history’s is longer. The senator needs to worry that—once the passions and the politically correct fanaticisms of this day have waned—his name does not come to stand for an infamous will to destroy a small, politically vulnerable Nevada community. NJ

Brooks Wallace writes from rural Nevada.


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