September 10, 2008

Wrangling more water than cows

Ely Times

ELY -- When the branding begins, Brandon Humphries is on horseback, his lasso turning slow loops in the air above a herd of nervous calves.

One by one, he snares the animals by their hind legs and drags them to a waiting group of ranch hands, who go to work with vaccine guns and an electric iron.

The air fills with white smoke and the smell of scorched hair.

After about an hour of this, Humphries climbs down from the saddle and right into the path of a calf that has slipped away from the ground crew. He wrestles the 200-pound animal to the ground, then pops back up with a grin on his face and a splash of green manure across the front of his long-sleeved work shirt.

He looks down at the stain and shrugs. "Shirt was going to get dirty eventually anyway," he says.

A scene like this is not unusual in the lonesome valleys of White Pine County. This kind of work has been going on here for more than a century.

What's strange is who Humphries' boss is.

Last year the Southern Nevada Water Authority hired him to run the string of ranches it now owns in Spring Valley, about 40 miles east of Ely. His authority-issued business cards identify him as "ranch manager," a position that rarely, if ever, shows up in the staff directory of a major municipal water supplier.

Humphries' job is to oversee Great Basin Ranch, a collection of seven agricultural operations the authority has snapped up since 2006.

The water agency's holdings in Spring Valley now include more than 23,000 acres, 4,000 sheep, 1,700 cows, a working hay farm, and the rights to more than 13 billion gallons of surface water and groundwater each year.

The authority also has acquired more than 1 million acres of federal grazing rights, including a sheep range that stretches more than halfway to Las Vegas, some 250 miles away.

The purchases were made to support a scheme to tap groundwater across eastern Nevada.

By as early as 2013, the authority hopes to start sending water south through a pipeline that is expected to cost between $2 billion and $3.5 billion. Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy has described Spring Valley as the "anchor basin" for the project. More than half of the water destined to one day fill the pipeline is expected to come from there.

The water project has stirred fierce opposition, and so have the purchases in Spring Valley.

Critics say the authority paid way too much for the ranches and now runs them with a mixture of incompetence and reckless spending.

Rancher and Assemblyman Pete Goicoechea considers it public money down the drain.

"If they had to pay for those ranches with the way they're running their livestock, they'd be broke in three years," says the Republican from Eureka. "It doesn't matter who's running them, though. Christ couldn't come off the cross to run those ranches and break even with what they paid for them."

But water authority officials insist the deals make sense in the proper context: They didn't buy the ranches for the livestock or the land. They weren't looking to break into the cattle industry or set up a rural retreat where city folk could play cowboy for a weekend. They were after one thing.

"We're paying market value for water," Humphries explains. "We're not buying a ranch for a ranch."

And if authority officials have their way, at least some of their new groundwater holdings in Spring Valley will be sent down the pipeline to Las Vegas one day.

Beyond that, the authority hasn't developed a long-term plan for the ranches yet. Though they are projected to operate at or near the break-even point starting this year, it might not make sense to keep them running as they are forever, officials say.

One idea is to open up the land to the state's university system as a sort of living laboratory for agricultural and environmental research. Another idea involves setting aside a portion of the property as a public natural area.

Authority Deputy General Manager Dick Wimmer says some changes undoubtedly will be made, but it's too early to say what those might be.

In the meantime, authority officials have one very compelling reason to keep ranching and farming on their property: Under Nevada law, you either use your water rights or you lose them.

The team

In the first two hours of branding, the water authority's calves stop lowing only once, when a single clap of thunder crashes down from a dark cloud gathering over nearby Wheeler Peak.

The animals wait in stunned silence for a few seconds to see what might happen next. Then they start up again.

The ranch hands greet the thunder with a holler.

Now it's a race against the weather. As any rancher will tell you, it's damned hard to brand a wet calf.

Most of these cows and steers were born in Spring Valley within the last 50 days. Each is roped and dragged backward across the grass to ground crew members who restrain it with a metal device known as a Nord fork.

In addition to the brand burned onto its right hip, each animal gets two vaccine shots. The males get castrated.

When it's over, the calves are turned loose to rejoin their mothers, which seems to calm them instantly.

The whole process takes about a minute and moves in a way that suggests an assembly line or a pit stop at a NASCAR race, with one key difference: Cars don't fight back.

"It's interesting to see how they do their business, how quick it is," says water authority biologist Zane Marshall, who stops by the corral to watch for a few minutes.

After snapping some pictures on his digital camera, he tries his hand once with the branding iron, then heads back out to continue his work.

Marshall is in Spring Valley to check on a contract crew hired by the authority to map the area's vegetation. The crew's work will help fill in the detail on aerial photos of the valley.

The goal is to catalog the existing flora and fauna so any impacts from the groundwater transfer can be tracked more easily once the pumps are turned on.

"It supports long-term monitoring," says Marshall, who manages the authority's Environmental Resources Division.

His team is also tracing the movements of sage grouse in the valley. Five of the birds have been fixed with radio telemetry collars, a process that sounds a lot easier than it ought to be.

Basically, Marshall says, you find them where they roost at night, shine a spotlight in their eyes and crank some loud music.

"Def Leppard or Metallica," he says. "It depends on when you were born."

Then you just scoop up the stunned birds with a net.

Humphries, who went along on one of the grouse roundups, says ranchers and wildlife biologists don't often mix, let alone collaborate as they do at Great Basin Ranch.

"Usually he doesn't like what I'm doing, and I don't like what he's going to do," Humphries says of a biologist like Marshall. "Here we're colleagues on the same team working for the same purpose."

On the ground

Spring Valley is a patchwork quilt of sagebrush, greasewood and meadow grass, stitched here and there with stream-fed ribbons of willow and silver maple trees. It is also a science textbook flipped open to the chapter on basin and range geology.

At about 25 miles wide and 110 miles long, it runs north-south between mountain blocks that rise sharply on either side like Cenozoic parentheses.

To the west is the Schell Creek Range, to the east the Snake Range, crowned by Wheeler Peak, Nevada's second highest summit at 13,063 feet.

The so-called "Loneliest Road in America," U.S. Highway 50, crosses the valley's midsection like a belt, its buckle the junction where U.S. 93 arrives from the south.

The authority bought its first ranch here in 2006. Within a year, Nevada's largest wholesale water supplier owned more private land in the valley than anyone else.

The almost $79 million buying frenzy has led some to predict that the authority could one day own all of the private property in Spring Valley.

The water authority's Mulroy won't rule that out, but she doesn't think it will be necessary.

"The strategic ranches we needed to protect sensitive species in the area we got. And the ranches with the greatest opportunity for reinjecting water into the groundwater table, we got those, too," she says.

As Wimmer explains it, Great Basin Ranch is "not looked at as a profit center" but as a "holistic" way to manage Spring Valley's water and environmental resources. As a result, he says, what goes on there at times might bear little resemblance to a typical livestock operation, where the bottom line is all there is.

Already, the authority is busy upgrading equipment, examining ways to improve water efficiency, and opening the property up to a small army of hydrologists and biologists whose primary mission is to make the pipeline pay off.

The authority's opponents see a more sinister motive at work.

"The only reason they bought those ranches was to provide a buffer. If they own them there's no one there to cry foul" if the water table drops, Assemblyman Goicoechea says. "They can say what they want, but that's why they bought the valley."

The cowboy lawmaker does agree with Las Vegas water officials on one point: They aren't running their ranches in a way he's ever seen.

"There's some things they've done that have some people in the industry grinning," he says.

At a recent livestock auction, for example, Great Basin Ranch agreed to some unusual sale conditions for its calves that could needlessly stress the animals and reduce their value when they are weighed for delivery in the fall, Goicoechea says. "They were the laughingstock of the auction."

Not everyone is upset by the authority's presence in Spring Valley.

Dennis Eldridge ranches on neighboring land that has been in his family since 1917. He thinks the authority is "doing fine" so far.

"They do things a little differently, but they've been fine with us," he says. "They've been a good neighbor."

It should be noted that the Eldridge family is in talks to sell its 6,300-acre spread to the authority. It should also be noted that Dennis Eldridge has a reputation for speaking his mind.

He says some fellow ranchers are jealous of Great Basin Ranch's new equipment and bottomless financial backing. Others just don't like change.

He says people are always anxious at first when a "foreign entity" moves into the valley, especially one affiliated with the government, which he jokingly refers to as "the big thumb."

As far as Eldridge is concerned, though, it's the people on the ground who count.

"Brandon's always been a good neighbor," he says. "He's helped us even before they (the authority) came along."

Along with Humphries, the authority directly employs three ranch hands, two of them college graduates with degrees in plant or animal science.

About 30 contract workers make up the rest of the staff. Some are here from Mexico and Peru on work visas that allow them to stay for months or years at a time.

There's plenty of work to go around, especially on branding day.

Several members of the day's crew were up before the sun, moving wheel lines that keep the alfalfa green and tending to the two dairy cows that keep the ranch supplied with milk.

Ranch hand Latara Pickering has logged 127 hours of work in the last two weeks.

Her brother, Matt Pickering, literally can't remember the last time he had a vacation. Ask him, and he has to think about it for a minute. "I went and picked up my brother at the airport," he finally says.

To brand every new calf on the ranch takes six full days scattered over three weeks. After that, the animals are turned out for five months to graze and pack on about 250 pounds each.

In early November, the animals will be loaded into trailers and trucked to their final stop before the slaughterhouse: a ranch near California where they will be "finished" with more grazing aimed at adding another 500 pounds of beef.

Humphries says the cattle operation near Bakersfield, Calif., agreed to buy the authority's first full batch of calves based on a video of the animals that was shown during an Aug. 1 auction in Winnemucca.

When a smaller group of cows and steers were sold and shipped off the ranch last fall, the line of cattle trucks stretched for a mile, he says.

Back in the saddle

A water utility with ranch property is not as unusual as you might think.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California leases some of its land for agricultural use. So do Denver Water, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and several municipal water companies in Arizona.

What makes the arrangement in Spring Valley unusual is the water authority's decision to staff its property rather than lease it.

For Humphries, that meant a new opportunity at an opportune time.

"At that point, I needed a job," he says. "I knew the ranch, and they needed someone to look after their investment."

Humphries moved to Spring Valley eight years ago from Cedar City, Utah, to help his uncle run a hay farm.

When his uncle sold the place to the water authority in April 2007, Humphries suddenly found himself out of work.

Mulroy says Humphries seemed like the natural choice to look after the authority's livestock.

"It's not like we plucked somebody who has never done this before," she says. "We're going to the people who know how to do these things.

"The decisions on running those (ranches) are Brandon's."

Before he landed in Spring Valley, Humphries ran a landscaping company, a Mormon bookstore, and a side business that sold old railroad ties in Cedar City.

But cowboy life is in his blood.

When he was a kid, his family used to spend part of the year on a spread near Gunlock, Utah, where his grandfather kept 120 head of cattle and "we did everything by hand."

Humphries first climbed into the saddle at age 6, and within a year he was spending whole days on the range with his grandfather. He rode with blocks of wood taped to his stirrups so his legs would reach.

Today, the 36-year-old Humphries lives with his wife and five children in a house with a white rail fence and a sweeping view of Wheeler Peak from the front window.

"Basically, I went from operating a 600-acre farm for my uncle to operating a ranch with 1.2 million acres" of rangeland, he says. "It was quite a change."

Show 'em

On this day, Humphries and his branding crew get lucky. The clouds hold off until the last calf is done.

When the sky finally opens up around noon, what comes down is snow, a rarity for early June on the more-than-mile-high valley floor.

The weather is a mixed bag, Humphries says. It's good for the hay crop, but it also means two guys will have to go out on graders the next day to make sure the roads through the ranch are passable.

"In the ranch business in Spring Valley, what you deal with is too much water or not enough water," he says. "Both are occurring right now on the ranch."

Reaction to Humphries and his employer in White Pine County seems a little like that, too. It arrives in a trickle or a flood, some of it good, most of it bad.

Humphries predicts the anger and suspicion will fade over time, as "people come to realize we're here to be part of the community."

Until then, he knows only one surefire way to silence the critics: "Show 'em."

"That's what we do day by day," Humphries says. "We're under the microscope."

A new brand for a new ranch

When the Southern Nevada Water Authority bought the El Tejon ranch in White Pine County last May, the agency also acquired some livestock and an unusual problem.

Suddenly, the wholesale water supplier for the Las Vegas Valley needed its own cattle brand.

The design job fell to senior public information coordinator Lisa Riess and graphic artist Cathy Leece.

"It was absolutely the most unusual thing I have been asked to do," says Riess, an eight-year employee of the water authority.

Since neither of them knew the first thing about branding, they began by hitting the books.

What they discovered was a rich Nevada tradition dating back well over a century, one with its own complex set of rules and conventions.

It was a little like learning a new language, one Riess compares to Morse code or hieroglyphics, with letters and symbols that contain entire phrases if you know how to unlock them.

"This is not the typical brand you're used to in marketing," she says. "This was an entirely new subculture for us."

In other words, the authority could not simply burn a version of its water-droplet logo into the hides of its newly acquired cattle and sheep. Developing the brand had to be a "very careful, very deliberate" process, says Brandon Humphries, the authority's ranch manager in White Pine County.

Riess and Leece knew going in that their design would have to be unique, so it wouldn't be confused with any other brand on file in Nevada. They didn't realize that would mean paging through the state's brand book, a 600-page tome crammed with about 4,000 different symbols.

"I would liken it to a copyright search," Riess says.

They also had to consider the landscape in which the livestock roam, since tradition dictates that a brand be "symbolic of the land it represents," Riess says.

Humphries had an additional requirement. He needed the brand to be easy to identify from a distance, but not so easy as to "rub it into people's faces" that the Southern Nevada Water Authority now owns livestock in the area. After all, Las Vegas water officials aren't exactly popular in White Pine County, what with their plans to export billions of gallons of groundwater from the area.

Finally, Riess and Leece had to consider the technical constraints of brand design, namely that the symbol they selected must be easily rendered in iron. And in the interest of being humane, they had to avoid the use of multiple symbols and enclosed spaces in their design that might cause painful "hot spots" in the finished brand.

The process took about nine months and involved dozens of drafts, including one that translated to "small fancy g."

Riess says the water authority's administrative team helped pick the final version, and the Nevada Department of Agriculture's Division of Livestock Identification gave its approval last October after a few weeks of review.

The authority's brand looks like an uppercase G with a waterfall tumbling out of it. And for good reason. The symbol literally translates to "falling water G."

The G stands for Great Basin Ranch, the name under which the water authority operates the more than 23,000 acres it has acquired in White Pine County's Spring Valley since 2006.

"A brand to us is a literal brand, but it still represents the company," Humphries explains.

The new brand was seared onto the right hip of about 1,500 calves in late May and June.

Asked how she feels about that, Riess says she has no moral objections to the practice of branding or cattle ranching in general. She used to be a vegetarian, but now she enjoys a good steak once in a while.

That's where she draws the line, though.

Riess says she has no interest in actually burning her "falling water G" onto the side of a live animal.

"I'll leave that to the professionals," she says.