LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The Southern Nevada Water Authority wants other western water districts to conserve resources in the face of the region’s 20-year drought, saying it’s wasteful to grow certain water-intensive crops in parched desert landscapes. But records show the agency is not heeding its own advice.

Farmers tend to fields in southern Nevada

California’s Imperial Valley is a breadbasket where all manner of winter vegetables are grown, but a drive through the valley makes clear what it grows most of all. Field after field of thick green alfalfa. It takes seven feet of water to grow each acre of alfalfa, all of which is fed to animals and most of which is exported to Asia, especially to China.

The Imperial Irrigation District gets more Colorado River water than the entirety of Nevada and Arizona combined. This is why Nevada water officials have urged changes in how water from the troubled river is used.

“Ordinarily, I stay out of my neighbor’s business,” explains John Entsminger, general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District. “When you have a math problem and 90 percent of the water use is in agriculture, and 80 percent of that 80 percent is for forage crops which are largely exported, it’s hard not to see how that’s not part of the solution.”

Many say ranchers and farmers from Nevada should heed that advice. Water-intensive alfalfa grown in the driest state in the country is Nevada’s second biggest agricultural product after beef.

One ranch in White Pine County which is part of a seven-property empire that stretches across more than 100 miles north to south, covers a vast 950,000 acres overall. But who owns that vast area of farmland? You do. The Great Basin Ranch, as it’s known, is owned and operated by a public agency — the Southern Nevada Water Authority. And the only crop that is grown on that land? Alfalfa. 8,600 tons of it last year alone.

Photo of Great Basin Ranch

Many may wonder why a public agency in the ranching business competes directly against family farms. 15 years ago, the SNWA paid $79 million to buy seven ranches that, at the time, were valued at one-tenth of that amount. The properties were intended as beachheads for the SNWA’s plan to build more than 300 miles of pipes and pumps to siphon billions of gallons of rural groundwater for use in thirsty Las Vegas. Cost estimates for the project grew from $1 billion to $5 billion to $15 billion before the water authority pulled it off the table. The plan was scrapped, not because of the expense, but because opponents won multiple court cases arguing that taking water from rural aquifers would drain the water table and create a huge dead zone.

Now, years after the pipeline plan was supposedly killed, the SNWA is still pouring public resources into its ranches. Simeon Herskovits, an attorney for the Great Basin Water Network calls the activity suspicious.

Photo of Simeon Herskovits, attorney for the Great Basin Water Network

“There’s no real reasonable explanation for them continuing to play the game of ranch ownership and management up here in White Pine County,” Herskovits says. “They are still somehow angling in the future for a toehold or a foothold to allow them to take rural water.”

Herskovits was battling cancer when he prevailed over a battery of high-powered lawyers employed by the SNWA. Records show the agency has retained a long list of expensive law firms to fight its various battles. The cows and sheep of the SNWA ranches have their very own lawyer lobbyist who is paid $600,000 per year to represent them at the Nevada legislature.

Those legal costs don’t generally get included in the financial statements of the Great Basin Ranch, statements that appear to show the ranch is operating in the black. The ranch spent millions to buy all new stock. It spent millions more on new watering pivots to grow its alfalfa, an impressive array of top-of-the-line tractors and trucks and new barns to house the hay. Unlike its smaller neighbors, this ranch doesn’t have to pay a mortgage, property taxes or license fees for its vehicles.

Photo of sheep rancher Hank Vogler

Hank Vogler, a sheep rancher, says he has been in the crosshairs of the SNWA ever since he came out opposed to the pipeline plan. Although the authority vowed to be a good neighbor when it bought the seven ranches, it has been embroiled in multiple disputes with several of its smaller rivals.

Expensive legal fights over grazing rights have drained family ranches already strained by the drought according to obtained from the SNWA.

Records obtained from the Southern Nevada Water Authority show ongoing surveillance of Hank Vogler and his livestock. The SNWA ranch has filed numerous complaints about Vogler with other agencies which led to more complaints, investigations and expenses. Vogler says the struggle is depleting his entire life savings.

“I spent my entire life trying to do this, and now I’m being pushed aside,” Vogler said. “Destroyed.”

Representatives from the SNWA declined an in-person interview but did respond to written questions via email.

Q: How much alfalfa was produced in the last 3 years, how much did the sale of the alfalfa earn?

A: The production of alfalfa can range year-over-year depending on a number of variables, including drought and weather events; soil conditions; crop rotation schedules; and other factors.

The SNWA’s Great Basin Ranch has about 1500 acres of alfalfa in annual production, and alfalfa production over the past three years has averaged about 7,783 tons per year.

While most of the produced alfalfa is sold to area operators or to regional brokers, some of the produced crop is reserved to feed Great Basin Ranch livestock, especially in years where range conditions are poor and do not support normal grazing activities.


  • Alfalfa Produced = 7,184 tons
  • Average Price = $180/ton
  • Total Value = $1,293,120


  • Alfalfa Produced = 8,169 tons
  • Average Price = $200/ton
  • Total Value = $1,633,800


  • Alfalfa Produced = 7,996 tons
  • Average Price = $290/ton
  • Total Value = $2,318,840

Q: Where was the alfalfa sold in the last 3 years and who buys it?

A: A number of local operators in Nevada and adjacent states buy alfalfa, 3-Way, Triticale and oats produced at the Great Basin Ranch. Those local buyers are outlined below. Additionally, some Great Basin Ranch products are sold on the open market through brokers, as is common in the agricultural industry. The alfalfa sold on the open market is graded on a number of variables such as protein content and residual feed value, which help to determine price. The Great Basin Ranch produces a high-quality alfalfa and other crop without the use of pesticides, and with low weed content.

Local Buyers:

  • Platt Livestock – 3Way & Triticale
  • Art Andrae – 3Way, Tri & Alfalfa
  • Robert Eldridge – Alfalfa
  • B&W Trucking – 3Way, Oats, Triticale
  • McKay Livestock – 3Way, Oats, Triticale
  • Dave Wright – 3Way
  • Jack Cooper – Alfalfa
  • Chris Collis – Alfalfa


  • The Gombos Company
  • Sage Hill Northwest
  • D&M Hay Sales
  • Haasen Tara Feed
  • Aldahra/ACX

Q: Same question for sheep and cattle, how much was sold in the last 3 years, and who buys it?

A: Below is an overview of revenue generated from the sale and auction of commodities sold by the Great Basin Ranch over the past three years, as well as the buyers:


Cattle Revenue

  • FY19/20 – $1,435,653
  • FY20/21 – $2,498,471
  • FY21/22 – $1,413,193

Cattle Buyers

  • Twin Falls Livestock Auction
  • Superior Livestock Auction
  • Loma Livestock
  • Geyser Cattle Company
  • Bill Martin Livestock
  • Fallon Livestock
  • Producers Livestock


Sheep Revenue

  • FY19/20 – $311,641
  • FY20/21 – $600,771
  • FY21/22 – $733,271

Sheep Buyers

  • Northern Livestock Video Auction
  • Twin Falls Livestock Auction
  • Fallon Livestock
  • Producers Livestock


Wool – Revenue as received in FY

  • FY19/20 – $119,846
  • FY20/21 – $76,854
  • FY21/22 – $144,765

Wool Buyer

  • Utah Wool Marketing Association

Q: What is the long-term goal/mission of the SNWA ranch? Now that the rural groundwater plan is formally off the table, has SNWA considered selling the ranch operation?

A: As you are aware, in spring 2020 the Southern Nevada Water Authority and its Board of Directors made the decision to defer the Clark, Lincoln and White Pine Counties Groundwater Development Project (GDP), resulting in the withdrawal of pending groundwater applications, relinquishment of federal rights of way; and withdrawal from federal stipulations concerning Spring, Dry Lake, Cave and Delamar valleys.

The Board also directed SNWA to maintain the assets related to the Great Basin Ranch and its operation. Therefore, SNWA continues to preserve and maintain those ranch-related assets – including (but not limited to) existing water rights; property rights; grazing rights; equipment, facilities, capital assets; and related natural resources within the area. 

Since the GDP was deferred little more than two years ago, SNWA continues to operate the Great Basin Ranch while also considering other options to benefit the area’s natural resources, including contemplating partnership opportunities with federal and state resource management agencies and non-governmental organizations related to environmental stewardship. SNWA is also considering opportunities to study and demonstrate emerging agricultural technologies and practices to improve water efficiency for agricultural production, which may have applications within the Colorado River Basin.  

Q: How much water does the ranch use each year and are there plans to scale back or continue using it?

A: The goal is to put the water resources assets related to the Great Basin Ranch to beneficial use to maintain those property assets and keep them in good standing with the State of Nevada’s water laws. SNWA has approximately 56,550 acre-feet are surface water rights, and 11,950 acre-feet of groundwater rights. Over the past 5 year, the Great Basin Ranch has pumped an average of 6,315 acre-feet per year of its groundwater rights. Surface water usage varies year-over-year depending on precipitation, amount of acreage in production, and number of livestock in a given year.

Q: Has SNWA obtained a written legal opinion stating it is legally permissible for this government agency to compete directly against private ranchers and private enterprise?  Can we obtain a copy?

A: As a joint-powers political subdivision, SNWA can, among other things, purchase, receive, hold and use personal and real property wherever situated. Since ranching commodities are bought and sold on the open market, there is no direct competition with other ranching operators in terms of goods and services sold. SNWA also works to minimize impacts in shared grazing areas with other operators, while protecting the rights that SNWA maintains under those permits.

SNWA operates the Great Basin Ranch and utilizes its grazing rights in a substantially similar way as previous ranch owners. The Great Basin Ranch, however, has been known to forgo or limit some of its permitted seasonal grazing activities if (and when) range conditions are poor and where continued grazing could damage the natural resources. In these instances, SNWA will keep livestock on its deeded property and provide feed via the crops produced by the Great Basin Ranch. 

Q: Has SNWA sought or obtained a written legal opinion regarding the legality of a government agency (SNWA) holding a federal grazing permit?

A: The Interior Board of Land Appeals, Office of Hearing and Appeal concluded SNWA can hold grazing permits when they dismissed the N4 Grazing Board’s appeal on June 23, 2022 challenging BLM’s issuance of grazing permits (NV-L000-2021-04).  

Q: SNWA vowed to be “a good neighbor” when it first purchased the properties. In light of multiple ongoing conflicts, legal and otherwise, with rival ranchers, does it feel as if it met its promise?

Yes, SNWA has maintained its commitment to being a good neighbor. SNWA supports a number of local organizations, programs and events, and has also assisted federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, and other ranching operators in the area over the years. To help ensure that White Pine County and Lincoln County revenues are not adversely impacted, SNWA voluntarily provides annual payment in lieu of taxes to those counties. 

Disputes between sheep operators and cattle operators existed long before SNWA acquired the Great Basin Ranch and its assets, including grazing rights for areas shared between sheep and cattle operators. SNWA has invested sincere and honest efforts to negotiate and settle disputes with cattle operators within Dry Lake Valley, developing fair and mutual agreements that were not successfully accepted by other parties.

While there have been conflicts with the operation known as Need More Sheep Company, who has been found trespassing in areas unpermitted and/or within grazing allotments outside of their permitted rights, those conflicts are moving through legal processes.

SNWA has invested in making rangeland improvements to protect grazing areas for all users; implemented strategies to ensure domestic and wild sheep herds do not come in contact; aided in developing and improving roads; participated in countless biological studies with federal partners; and limited or foregone grazing activities in areas with poor range conditions to allow for native plant recovery, demonstrating rangeland stewardship. 

SNWA also has other neighbors in the area and shared grazing allotments with other operators where no conflict exists, as exemplified in the Muleshoe, Pioche Bench and Atlanta use areas that are shared with another operator on the Geyser Ranch.