No significant economic or population changes are likely in Mineral County over the next five years, said all three members of the Board of County Commissioners.

Clifford Cichowlaz (center) speaks during the Mineral County Board of County Commissioner’s town hall meeting on Sept. 18. The commissioners updated the community on several key issues, including that state of Walker Lake litigation and economic development. (C.W. Wilkinson photo)

No significant economic or population changes are likely in Mineral County over the next five years, said all three members of the Board of County Commissioners.

Each member of the board stressed he or she was only speaking for himself or herself; and each expressed a slightly different vision of the county’s future, but stagnation or worse was the prediction of each for the immediate future.

The board members spoke at a town hall meeting on Sept. 18. They were answering a question posed by Craig Nixon during the public comment portion of the meeting. Nixon asked the board members what they see coming for the county over the next five years.

“I do see us on a downward trend,” said Paul MacBeth, commissioner. “I do think we need to really wake up and […] we need to keep working at it. This is not an easy thing.

“And the other things is, it does all come back to money.”

MacBeth sees a path forward for the county, fraught with danger and opportunity.

The county must always move forward with all of the several opportunities for economic diversity it is presented with, MacBeth said. But, as always, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which has the power to shut down military bases around the world, looms like a specter over the county.

“I’m going to build a landmark, personally spend my money, that says ‘this is where Hawthorne was’ if that base goes away,” MacBeth said.

MacBeth also said improving the quality of life in Mineral County was among his priorities, but that anything the board can do requires money, which is in short supply.

To that end the board is looking for a list of things organizations in the county need, rather than things they want, he said. The board will take that list and apply for funds from the rapidly drying pool of grants and other subsidies, MacBeth said.

“We’re going to have to live within our means, and when you start doing that, you have a tendency to go backwards,”  MacBeth said. “But we have to work going forwards. And what it’s going to take is some really smart thinking.”

But despite his dire warnings, MacBeth does necessarily see doom and gloom for the county.

“I don’t want to paint a black picture, but […] I think we’re going to be just sustained, but we have to continue to work to go forward. We have to make good decisions with what limited funding we have,” MacBeth said.

Clifford Cichowlaz, vice chairman of the board, sees the county on a similar trajectory.

“I see stagnant,” Cichowlaz said. “I see, just, flat out for the next five, ten years. Hopefully we can do something to improve the quality of life.”

Cichowlaz cited many reasons he expects the county to stagnate over the next decade—he doesn’t expect the Hawthorne Army Depot to close; he doesn’t foresee any changes to the route of the highway; and he doesn’t think any progress will be made in beginning natural gas production in the county.

The existing buildings in the county are also a problem.

“The houses that we’ve got abandoned […] and the older folks, actually they’re moving on,” he said. “They move on to their kids, and the kids don’t come back, and so they older houses are not going to get retrofitted. They cost between $40,000 and $50,000 to retrofit an older house, just to get it in compliance, or just to get it livable.”

While there are several opportunities for moderate growth, including potentially selling water from the Hawthorne system to the HWAD, each can only be worked on “a little bit at a time”  he said.

“Do I see economic growth?” he summed up, “No. Do I see us go down? Not really. I see us pretty much staying stagnant.”

Board Chairwoman Jerrie Tipton took a longer view on economic development than the other board members did.

“I don’t see us having a huge boom and growing the population by an ungodly amount,” she said. “But, you know where I come from. Someday that’s going to be a different story, and if we don’t have a master plan, or a some long term strategic planning for what do we want to look and sound and taste and smell and feel like in five years, or 10 years or 20 years, then we’re going to get there and say ‘Oh my God, what did we do?’”

Tipton also pointed to a little-known way in which the county’s economy is diversifying — custom mills.

Tipton said her husband, Tony, is part of a group trying to open a custom metal mill in Mineral County that doesn’t  “have to depend on $2,000 an ounce gold, or $50 an ounce silver,” she said.

Tipton also sees the opening of the proposed nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain as an enormous boon for the county.

“I don’t see us having a big boom unless Yuka Mountain goes through and we’ve got a railroad and those kinds of things, and that has raised its head again,” she said.

Raising Water Rates

Cichowlaz also announced at the town hall meeting that the county plans to increase water rates to pay for a cost of living increase for utility workers. Water rates are expected to raise $5 for each payer.

“Everybody wants a cost of living increase,”  Cichowlaz said. “And that is passed on, because of the enterprise system, to the folks here. So you’re going to see a rate increase coming up.”

It’s not yet clear when, or if the rates will increase. Cichowlaz said he brought the subject up at the meeting to give Mineral County taxpayers a heads-up about the rate increase.

But before the rates go up, the full board has to approve the rate increase. Cichowlaz made the increase sound like a rubber stamp, but MacBeth later said that some of the commissioners were opposed to the rate hike.

Let the river flow

A 15-year long legal struggle over the fate of Walker Lake may be coming to an end next month.

Sean Rowe, Mineral County District Attorney, said Mineral County’s involvement in the legal battle over Walker Lake started in the mid ‘90’s when the county filed a law suit seeking to intervene in an ongoing case about Walker River.

The county filed suit to force the state of Nevada to ensure enough water reaches the lake to maintain it as a resource, Rowe said.

The first step in the process was to give notice of the suit everyone who owned water rights to the Walker River, and who “had an interest” or “could be effected” by the lawsuit, Rowe said.

“You’ve seen where that river flows,” he said. “You know how many people benefit from that river.”

Before the county could argue its case in court, it had to serve notice to all of the people involved in the suit.

Rowe said the county started serving notice to the over 1,000 parties to the suit in January 1995, and finished in December.

Rowe said the process was lengthened by the sheer number of people the county needed to notify, and a legal argument by upstream users that Mineral County would never be able to notify everyone involved in the case.

Eventually, Mineral County won its argument that there were a finite number of people to notify.

“That was a huge hurdle that we have made it over,” he said.

Some of the parties were notified by members of the Walker Lake Working Group, and non-profit organization that seeks to return water flow to the lake.

“They’d go door to door, risking life and limb, truly they were threatened, to give people upstream notice that Mineral County’s doing this. And because we were the fly in the ointment, they were treated rather hostily by some people.”

The case was also lengthened by a 3-year court-ordered mediation process, Rowe said. Both sides went into mediation in 2003, and the negotiations broke down in 2006, Rowe said.

Now that everyone involved has been notified of the impending suit, Mineral County can argue its case before a circuit judge in Reno. The argument took place on Sept. 23.

A ruling was expected on Sept. 23, but hadn’t been released by press time on Monday.

If the county prevailed on Monday, which Rowe expected it to, arguments about the merits of the case should begin in the summer of 2014.

But, because arguments about the merits of the case are drawing closer, the sides have come to the bargaining table again, Rowe said.

Rowe said he signed a confidentiality agreement, so he couldn’t talk about the settlement process, but he believes the board is very interested in settling the case.

But, even if a settlement is reached, “it will continue to take time” for water to flow into the lake, Rowe said.

“As you all know there are natural processes at work,” he said. “There are drought years, there are wet years. We can’t determine that. But what we can determine is the ability of people upstream to divert water out of that resource.”

Rowe also said he didn’t expect the water to ever return to the 1950’s level, and speculated it could be decades before there was enough water to maintain a population of fish.

The eventual goal is to get a sustainable flow of water down the river into the lake, Rowe said.