Federal Facilities

Alternative Land Uses Could Save Water at Fallon Naval Air Station, Nevada Gao ID: RCED/NSIAD-00-42 December 10, 1999

The Navy, which runs the Fallon Naval Air Station in Nevada, uses large amounts of water--in a region where water is scarce--to manage the land around its runways. Since the 1950s, the Navy has maintained a "greenbelt" at the air station that consists of acreage leased to local farmers who grow irrigated crops on the land. In the Navy's view, the "greenbelt" protects the facility from fires, lowers the chance of bird strikes or other damage to aircraft from foreign objects, and controls dust. Since 1990, the Navy has used about 1.6 billion gallons of surface water to irrigate this land each year. This report provides information on (1) the aviation safety and operational requirements for the runway protection zone at Fallon, (2) the alternative land used strategies that Fallon identified in response to congressional direction and how it evaluated them, and (3) the current 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.


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