I-Team: The Water Authority's Cash Cow - 8 News NOW

George Knapp, Chief Investigative Reporter

I-Team: The Water Authority's Cash Cow

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The I-Team obtained numerous receipts after filing public records requests. The I-Team obtained numerous receipts after filing public records requests.
The SWNA owns 1,700 cattle. The SWNA owns 1,700 cattle.

In the fertile fields of the Spring Valley, the Southern Nevada Water Authority is a colossus. It spent $80 million in public dollars to buy up most of the ranches in the valley at prices three to four times the going rate for land, and millions more in support of the operation.

In acquiring these 23,000 acres, SNWA also acquired 4,000 sheep, 1,700 cattle and an alfalfa farm. Four full time employees were hired. They in turn hire subcontractors.

SNWA is operating the ranches so it can legally hang on to the water rights while waiting for the pipeline to be built.

"SNWA did not buy these ranches to operate them as a profit. They are a tool to manage the environment and the watershed," said SNWA Deputy General Manager Richard Wimmer.

The water authority's Dick Wimmer says the plan is to pump thousands of acre feet of groundwater but to leave the surface water without harming the land.

If the plan is to not make money, it's working. Records obtained by the I-Team show the ranches spend an average of more than $45,000 each month to operate, sometimes more than $80,000 a month.

In the first year, the overall loss was a projected $731,000. SNWA expects a small profit in the coming year.

Area ranchers who were already critical of the pipeline plan are not impressed.

"They are in over their heads, that it takes more than a belt buckle and a new pair of boots and a Stetson hat to run one of these ranches," said Hank Vogler.

"This is going to be a financial disaster, but money doesn't mean anything to them down there," said Dean Baker.

For example, when SNWA learned it needed its own brand for livestock, it assigned the task to its staff which considered 17 different designs over nine months at a cost of more than $5,000.

Not exactly how a typical rancher would do it.

In order to establish credibility with ranchers, SNWA hired a Reno lawyer and lobbyist named Joe Guild as their cowboy liaison. Guild has some ranching experience in his resume, but when he appeared before the State Agriculture Commission last summer to make the case for the water grab, he was grilled about other work experience.

"Weren't you also a lobbyist for tobacco?" said Vogler

Guild's primary duties are seemingly related to the 1,700 cattle his employer owns.

The I-Team received piles of receipts submitted by Guild. He is paid $10,500 per month to represent SNWA, but that's just the beginning. Each month he travels to one or more cattle gatherings.

In January, for instance, the Range Management Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, followed by a public lands gathering in Washington and a water law conference in Reno. He was back in DC in February for the cattle industry annual convention and again in March for the cattlemen's Beef Association meeting.

A typical bill for just one of those was over $1,700 for the hotel. Plus there are meals -- $245 at Charlie Palmers in DC and another $46 at the bar.

Even when dining out in Sparks near his home, Guild charged $154 for a dinner that included two shots of Makers Mark, a couple of glasses of merlot and a $78 rack of lamb.

In Louisville, he billed SNWA for visits to at least four bars and while in Las Vegas for a meeting, he stayed at Mandalay Bay's The Hotel, but on three consecutive nights rang up bar bills at The Lounge, a posh hangout all paid for with public money.

 "I don't know the exact numbers," said Wimmer.  "I didn't know there were that many cattle conventions."

Dick Wimmer says Joe Guild performs a valuable service for SNWA, but he admits having never seen the bar bills and expensive meal tabs.

"Who looks at his expenses?" asked Knapp.

"Julie Wilcox, our Director of Public Services," said Wimmer.

"Is there such a thing as, we don't pay for your booze?" asked Knapp.

"I'm sure there is. I'm sure there has been. I don't know what's on that particular receipt. I'd have to look at it," said Wimmer.

From the receipts, Guild spends another $3,000 to $5,000 a month for meals and drinks and travel. Dick Wimmer oversees the ranch operation but says he had not seen any of these reimbursement requests from Mr. Guild.

One receipt sought reimbursement for an oil change in Guild's car. We were told though that the car belongs to SNWA. They bought him a hybrid to use when he works for them.

Tuesday night at 11, what the SNWA spends on public relations. We found it would take a whole lot of family water bills to add up to this much spending.

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