Over a tiny tract of land — nestled in the middle of the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Pahrump that a church uses for a retreat — a state agency has pierced the dark bureaucratic clouds with a ray of sunshine.

In 2010 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rerouted a stream that had run through the Ministero Roca Solida (Solid Rock) church’s 40-acre parcel of private land since at least the 1880s. The church purchased the land in 2006 and used the stream for traditional baptisms. The federal agency claimed it needed to reroute the stream so it could reintroduce speckled dace, an endangered minnow.

The rerouted spring-fed stream promptly overflowed its poorly engineered banks during a rain storm in 2010, presumably washing away the dace as well. Flooding occurred again in 2015 and twice this year, extensively damaging buildings and creating massive gullies.

But in an order dated Nov. 4 the state Division of Water Resources, arbiter of water rights in Nevada, demanded that Fish and Wildlife within 90 days return the stream to its original banks transversing the church retreat property or face a fine of $10,000 per day.

The state water agency concluded that the contention by Fish and Wildlife that it was reestablishing a historic natural drainage course is clearly wrong and the Carson Slough historically traversed the church land and the church has vested rights to the water, as well as the evidence to prove it, dating as far back as 1887.

The Solid Rock church, pastored by Victor Fuentes, a Cuban immigrant, has been fighting the federal land agency in court for several years with the aid of Nevada Policy Research Institute’s legal arm, the Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation. The court case is currently pending in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

“Getting the water returned would be a major first step in making the Ministry whole, after years of suffering litigation and egregious constitutional violations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Joe Becker, director of NPRI’s legal unit. “However, the Ministry still suffered significant harm in the interim from the federal government’s actions — including repeated flooding and five years of flood damage resulting from the illegal water diversion project.”

The first flooding caused $86,000 in damages, but subsequent floods have created so much damage the church is seeking $3 million or complete restoration of the property to its original status. Becker said, “A mini-grand-canyon now cuts through what was once lush wetlands, and the significant improvements made to structures and the land for the benefit of young campers are being undone with each recurring flood.”

The state’s action is a step in the right direction toward restoring the church’s property and water rights, but the federal government needs to repair or pay for the damage it has caused. — TM

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