Federal Facilities:

Alternative Land Uses Could Save Water at Fallon Naval Air Station, Nevada

RCED/NSIAD-00-42: Published: Dec 10, 1999. Publicly Released: Dec 10, 1999.

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James E. Wells, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on alternative land uses that could save water at Fallon Naval Air Station, Nevada, focusing on: (1) the aviation safety and operational requirements for the runway protection zone at Fallon Naval Air Station (NAS); (2) the alternative land use strategies Fallon NAS identified in response to congressional direction and how it evaluated them; and (3) the land use strategies at five military facilities and two commercial airports that operate in similar environments.

GAO noted that: (1) Fallon NAS must comply with the Department of Defense's (DOD) aviation safety and operational requirements for runway protection zones; (2) these requirements specify the maximum safe heights for buildings, towers, poles, and other possible obstructions to air navigation; (3) under these requirements, where possible, areas immediately beyond the ends of runways and along primary flight paths should be developed sparsely, if at all, to limit the risk from a possible aircraft accident; (4) at Fallon NAS, the agricultural and other low-density land uses are compatible with air operations; (5) the land surrounding the airfield is owned by the Navy and leased to farmers for agricultural use, which is permitted by DOD; (6) Fallon NAS gave detailed consideration to three land management strategies in developing its approach to managing land in the runway protection zone in the early 1990s; (7) each of these strategies involved irrigating the greenbelt; (8) as many as 11 different land management strategies were identified at the outset, but three of them were eliminated before an initial screening because Fallon NAS officials believed they would be environmentally or economically unacceptable or would cause unacceptable operational or safety impairments; (9) Fallon NAS officials eliminated five of the remaining eight strategies prior to a detailed analysis because they believed the strategies did not meet the Navy's evaluation criteria, which were based on provisions of the law; (10) the criteria Fallon NAS used in evaluating these land management strategies were based on the officials' assessment of whether the strategies would minimize dust, bird strikes, fire and other hazards, would enhance air safety, and, to a lesser extent, would reduce the amount of irrigation water used; (11) after a detailed analysis and the application of these criteria, Fallon NAS officials selected the strategy that involves conventional farming combined with water conservation practices because they believed it would have a very high probability of satisfying the safety goals while providing moderate water savings compared with the air station's historical usage; (12) at the seven other military facilities and commercial airports GAO visited, the land management strategies varied--two used strategies involving greenbelts, while five did not; and (13) the military facilities and commercial airports operating in desert-like conditions similar to Fallon NAS' have employed land management strategies that have resulted in water savings.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2000, NAS Fallon began a pilot program of removing the water rights and not irrigating 662 acres that are part of the Navy's Agriculture Outlease program. The irrigated pastures that are outside the runway protection zones will not be irrigated. The pilot program will consider operational safety, land degradation, cost, reduction in the groundwater recharge, and other long-term impacts.

    Recommendation: In light of the congressional concern over water consumption in this desert area as expressed in statute and in light of the techniques used at other desert air fields that are less water intensive, the Navy should consider these techniques for Fallon NAS. Specifically, the Navy should consider its earlier identified strategies and adopt specific actions that would achieve safety and operational requirements while reducing water use at the air station. It should consider adopting different strategies that recognize the distinction between areas within the runway protection zone and those beyond the zone. The results of the Navy's decision to stop irrigating 700 acres of previously irrigated land should be closely monitored to determine whether this strategy can be successfully applied to additional land at Fallon NAS.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Navy


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