A new proposal has emerged to import groundwater from Honey Lake Valley on the Nevada-California line to the north valleys of Reno.
But backers said the latest project is different than a similar one that was killed a decade ago.
Vidler Water Co. bought the 9,800-acre Fish Springs Ranch on the Nevada side of Honey Lake in 2000 to develop the groundwater resource and pipe it to the fast-growing valley areas north of Reno.
Vidler executives point to a report outlining the need to import water, a regional water management plan that supports importing water for the north valleys and a promise by Vidler to only sell 8,000 of the 13,000 acre-feet of water it has been permitted to export from the Fish Springs Ranch - 5,000 acre-feet less than were proposed a decade ago.
Still, there's plenty of skepticism in the Susanville, Calif., area about exporting the water, said Jack Hanson, a Lassen County supervisor whose district includes Honey Lake.
He said homeowners, farmers and ranchers on the California side of the basin fear the project would lower the area's water table.
"We know realistically once the homes get turned on to the water, it will be difficult to turn off the spigots," Hanson told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Tim Garrod, a Honey Lake rancher, said he expects the loss of groundwater eventually could impact 30 to 40 ranchers in Lassen County. Garrod said he can foresee digging deeper wells to tap water in drought years and higher energy costs to pump that water.
He raises alfalfa on about 700 of the 1,600 acres he has owned for 28 years. "The economics of ranching are always a marginal proposition," he said.
And he fears Vidler will try to quench an insatiable thirst for water in the Reno area as builders continue to frame new homes.
"Once the pipeline is in, they can buy ranches on this side of the basin or go to other valleys in the north," Garrod said. "Once the pipeline is in, they are going to keep it filled."
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is preparing a draft environmental impact statement covering Vidler's project and a project by Intermountain Basin Supply in Dry Valley to import water to the north valleys.
The two water projects could supply water for 11,500 households. A family of four uses about an acre-foot of water annually.
Terri Knutson, a BLM planner, said the water recharge issue is being studied, as well as a 32-mile pipeline across BLM land, which would end in the hills north of the Reno-Stead Airport.
"So far, the biggest concerns are coming from Lassen County," she said.
The initial report is due late this spring, a final report this fall and a decision made a year from now, Knutson said.
Based on 75 years of rainfall data, Palmer said, the U.S. Geological Survey in 1990 estimated the annual recharge of the Honey Lake basin at 24,000 acre-feet.
Knutson said pumping only 8,000 acre-feet will not harm even the closest ranchers or farmers, Pyramid Lake or draw in contaminated water from the Sierra Army Depot at Herlong.
About 5,000 acre-feet a year has been used at the ranch to irrigate alfalfa over the last three years, she said.
"We haven't seen any drop in groundwater quality," Knutson said.
A decade ago, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., urged Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to kill the Honey Lake water project. Reid said he now wants to review the environmental report due this spring before taking a stance.
He's still concerned about whether the project could lower the water level at Pyramid Lake. But other than that, "I see no federal interest at all," he said. "This is a state and county issue."
In a letter to the BLM, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also concerned about the impact of lowering the groundwater table on the endangered cui-ui fish at Pyramid Lake.
Spokeswoman Randi Thompson said more studies need to be done on the groundwater and how it flows.