Vegas-based water company runs string of ranches
U.S. Water News Online
ELY, Nev. — When the branding begins, Brandon Humphries is on horseback, his lasso turning slow loops in the air above a herd of nervous calves. One by one, he snares the animals and drags them to ranch hands who go to work with vaccine guns and an electric branding iron.
After about an hour of this, Humphries climbs down from the saddle and into the path of a calf running from the branding crew. He wrestles the 200-pound calf to the ground, then pops back up with a grin on his face and a splash of green manure on his long-sleeved work shirt.
"Shirt was going to get dirty eventually anyway," he says.
A scene like this is not unusual in the lonesome valleys of White Pine County. What's strange is who Humphries' boss is.
Last year the Southern Nevada Water Authority hired him to run the string of ranches it now owns in Spring Valley, about 40 miles east of Ely. His authority-issued business cards identify him as "ranch manager," a position that rarely, if ever, shows up in the staff directory of a major municipal water supplier.
Humphries' job is to oversee Great Basin Ranch, a collection of seven agricultural operations the authority has purchased since 2006.
The water agency's holdings in Spring Valley now include more than 23,000 acres, 4,000 sheep, 1,700 cows, a working hay farm, and the rights to more than 13 billion gallons of surface water and groundwater each year.
The authority also has acquired more than 1 million acres of federal grazing rights, including a sheep range that stretches more than halfway to Las Vegas, some 250 miles away.
The purchases were made to support a plan to tap groundwater across eastern Nevada. By as early as 2013, the authority hopes to start sending water south through a pipeline that is expected to cost from $2 billion to $3.5 billion.
Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy has described Spring Valley as the "anchor basin" for the project. More than half of the water destined to one day fill the pipeline is expected to come from there.
The water project has stirred fierce opposition, and so have the purchases in Spring Valley. Critics say the authority paid too much for the ranches and now runs them with a mixture of incompetence and reckless spending.
Rancher and state Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea considers it public money down the drain.
"If they had to pay for those ranches with the way they're running their livestock, they'd be broke in three years," says the Republican from Eureka.
Water authority officials insist the deals make sense in the proper context - they didn't buy the ranches for the livestock or the land.
"We're paying market value for water," Humphries explains. "We're not buying a ranch for a ranch."
The authority hasn't developed a long-term plan for the ranches yet. Though they are projected to operate at or near the break-even point starting this year, it might not make sense to keep them running as they are forever, officials say.
One idea is to open up the land to the state's university system as a sort of living laboratory for agricultural and environmental research. Another idea involves setting aside a portion of the property as a public natural area.
Dick Wimmer, the authority's deputy general manager, says some changes undoubtedly will be made, but it's too early to say what those might be.
In the meantime, authority officials have one very compelling reason to keep ranching and farming on their property - under Nevada law, you either use your water rights or you lose them.
The authority bought its first ranch here in 2006. Within a year, Nevada's largest wholesale water supplier owned more private land in the valley than anyone else.
Along with Humphries, the authority hired three full-time ranch hands, two of them college graduates with degrees in plant or animal science. About 30 contract workers make up the rest of the staff.
After spending almost $79 million buying land, some have predicted the authority could one day own all the private property in Spring Valley.
The water authority's Mulroy won't rule that out, but she doesn't think it will be necessary.
"The strategic ranches we needed to protect sensitive species in the area we got. And the ranches with the greatest opportunity for reinjecting water into the groundwater table, we got those, too," she says.
As Wimmer explains it, Great Basin Ranch is "not looked at as a profit center" but as a "holistic" way to manage Spring Valley's water and environmental resources. As a result, he says, what goes on there at times might bear little resemblance to a typical livestock operation, where the bottom line is all there is.