Secretary Granholm on Nevada’s role in the energy transition, lithium mining, rooftop solar

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Last Thursday, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm sat down for a roundtable with Gov. Steve Sisolak, Rep. Steven Horsford and other Nevada leaders. 

The roundtable was part of Granholm’s multi-state tour stumping for the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan and its efforts to speed up the energy transition. 

And if there was a theme for the day, it was the economy and jobs. 

Not long before the roundtable, Sisolak signed a massive energy infrastructure bill, SB448, at IBEW Local 357. The bill, dropped in the final weeks of the legislative session, focuses on NV Energy’s build-out of its Greenlink transmission line and the deployment of electric vehicles. 

Granholm touted the bill, sponsored by Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), who participated in the roundtable with other renewable advocates. NV Energy CEO Doug Cannon was also there. 

Other states Granholm has visited recently (Texas and West Virginia) have played central roles in producing fossil fuels: oil, gas and coal. But Nevada is in a different position. In Nevada, the fossil fuel industry is small compared to other states, where it has historically been a dominant and powerful political player. 

In Granholm’s remarks, she recognized what Nevada’s economic development planners have said for years: When it comes to energy, the opportunity for Nevada is not in fossil fuels, but as an exporter of renewable energy across the West and a key player in the battery supply chain.

From Granholm’s perspective, Nevada has everything “soup to nuts.” She pointed to the ample land for solar projects, the Tesla Gigafactory, geothermal capacity and deposits for critical minerals. 

“When I say ‘soup to nuts,’ Granholm said during an interview with The Nevada Independent on Friday, “that's really referring to the full supply chain of clean energy products that we should be building and manufacturing in this country, as well as installing and exporting.”

But doing that won’t necessarily be easy. New development in Nevada, from large-scale solar projects to mining, has, at times, faced opposition from Indigenous communities, conservation groups and local residents concerned with how projects could harm ecosystems and change the landscape.

In a brief interview Friday, as Granholm prepared to tour the Townsite solar project in Boulder City, she discussed some of the opportunities and challenges facing Nevada amid the push to place more renewables on public land and secure a domestic supply chain for the materials needed to produce electric cars.

On the need for domestic solar-panel production: Granholm stressed the importance of manufacturing solar panels in the United States, saying that “other countries have cornered the market on some of this, and we need to get it back.” She specifically singled out China, noting that President Biden had just delivered remarks concerning China’s use of forced labor.

“Nevada could be manufacturing solar panels, as well as installing them,” she said.

Land for utility-scale solar projects: Early into the interview, Granholm said that Nevada’s “comparative advantage is this massive amount of land that could be used to generate solar.” 

Nevada is one of the least densely populated states, and about 85 percent of the state’s land is managed by federal agencies, from the Department of the Defense (military bases) to the U.S. Forest Service (national forests). Most of the utility-scale solar would likely be sited on land managed by the Department of Interior, specifically the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. 

The bureau oversees about 65 percent of Nevada’s land — and they are often charged with permitting energy projects (solar, geothermal, wind, etc.). But the bureau must balance multiple (and often conflicting) activities: conservation, recreation, grazing, mining, etc.

Even with plans to prioritize energy development in low-impact areas, energy developers are still eyeing projects in sensitive areas. In Southern Nevada, projects have run into opposition over their impacts on imperiled species, such as the Mojave desert tortoise, recreation activities and sacred sites for Indigenous communities.

As a result, many environmental groups have called for better federal and state planning to direct projects into areas with fewer impacts. We asked Granholm about this and how she is working with the Department of Interior.

“I’m really enthusiastic because Secretary [Deb] Haaland and the president are really prioritizing renewable energy on public lands, and that’s onshore and offshore,” Granholm said. 

“Our team is actively working with her team to figure out how to do that,” she added. “What are the most optimal places we should be prioritizing? How do you streamline the permitting without jeopardizing the reviews that need to happen to ensure that you are protecting the resources?”

Granholm said lithium mining should have the support of Indigenous and local communities: The Energy Secretary’s visit came just days after the Biden administration released a report looking into the supply chain for electric vehicle batteries and other products needed to address climate change.

The report underscores the need for securing critical minerals both domestically and from allies. But as new mines are proposed in Nevada and across the American West, Indigenous leaders and conservation groups have raised serious concerns about how certain projects to extract key minerals, including copper and lithium, would irreparably harm the environment. 

When thinking about where to permit mines, Granholm stressed the need for community buy-in.

“The view of the administration is that mining that is done here — in the U.S. — must be done responsibly, sustainably, and with the buy-in of local and indigenous groups,” she said. 

Granholm said Indigenous communities who have been on the land for generations “have to be at the table” during mine planning. She said that companies could engage in partnerships, such as community development agreements, to direct benefits to Indigenous and local communities.

Granholm on the role of rooftop solar: NV Energy’s CEO was at the roundtable with Granholm on Thursday, and the Berkshire Hathaway-owned utility is playing a driving role in transitioning the state’s power sector away from fossil fuels. 

But what about renewable energy infrastructure that is not owned directly by the utility?

We asked Granholm about “distributed energy resources,” a very technical (and dry) phrase for electric infrastructure that is installed on-site (think rooftop solar), rather than by the utility. 

She said utility-scale and distributed generation are both “incredibly important pieces of the pie.”

Granholm noted that although the roundtable focused on NV Energy’s Greenlink transmission line (a utility-scale project), “there’s also a role for distributed transmission too — microgrids to help with resiliency — and certainly in more remote areas that are powered by solar.” 


Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

THE COLORADO RIVER

‘An earthquake in people’s sense of urgency:’ That’s a quote from The Arizona Republic’s piece about Lake Mead declining to its lowest level since the 1930s. “The lake's rapid decline has been outpacing projections from just a few months ago,” reporter Ian James wrote. 

The real-world effects of Lake Mead’s low elevation: Review-Journal reporter Blake Apgar writes that the Lake Mead boat launch area closed on Friday last week. 

Saving the Salton Sea: The Desert Sun’s Mark Olalde published an excellent, in-depth story on the proposals to fix the issues in the Salton Sea by importing water from the Sea of Cortez. 

DROUGHT HITS THE WEST

Wildlife managers drop water for bighorn sheep: Review-Journal science reporting fellow Stephanie Castillo writes about the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s efforts to replenish water sources for bighorn sheep amid severe drought conditions. “We have had to haul water on an emergency basis, but not anywhere near approaching this magnitude, this scale of severity,” said one wildlife biologist for the agency. 

Life on the edge in the Amargosa River Basin: The Amargosa River is a unique landscape that has carved out a biodiversity hotspot. But the climate change and groundwater overuse are adding new stresses to the area, as National Geographic’s Stefan Lovgren reports. 

These visuals, compiled by the New York Times, show just how bad the drought is. 

LITHIUM SUPPLY CHAIN 

Battery recycling firm is expanding: The Reno Gazette Journal’s Jason Hidalgo writes about Redwood Materials, a Nevada-based battery recycling firm that was started by a former Tesla executive. 

A Panasonic mining partnership: Neolith Energy, a venture from oil services company Schlumberger, is partnering with Panasonic on a lithium extraction project near Tonopah. 

Thacker Pass mine work delayed, via Reuters’ Ernest Scheyder. And over the weekend, more than a hundred demonstrators, including many Indigenous leaders and advocates, gathered in Reno to protest the mine (photos from the Reno Gazette Journal).

WATER AND LAND

Biden to reverse Trump’s Clean Water Act rollback: President Joe Biden’s EPA is planning to restore certain federal protections for streams and wetlands after the Trump administration weakened protections associated with the Clean Water Act, the New York Times’ Lisa Friedman reports.

Lawmakers want wild horse investigation, halt on adoptions, the Review-Journal’s Gary Martin reports.

Why does snow turn pink? The answer has to do with microalgae. But there is also an important feedback loop involving climate change — with implications for snowmelt. KUNR’s Noah Glick has more. 

Coming up: The Clark County Lands Bill is getting a hearing in Congress. 

Outdoor recreation chief: Industry needs boost for BLM, Forest Service budgets and aid for rural communities

Colin Robertson, head of the state’s Division of Outdoor Recreation, called for more federal funding for land management along with investment in rural communities to help better manage resources stressed by the pandemic, which drove more campers to remote areas even as jobs decreased in outdoor recreation.

Robertson said he believes boosting annual appropriations for the Department of Interior, including the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, which control more than 80 percent of land in Nevada, would position the industry for a comeback and needed growth. 

“One of the biggest impacts my role and my office of outdoor recreation in Nevada can have is to advocate for increased resourcing for those federal land management agencies who are responsible for so much public land in the state,” Robertson said on Tuesday.

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) visits with Outdoor Recreation Administrator Colin Robertson after a hearing, June 15, 2021. (Photo by Humberto Sanchez)

He spoke after testifying before a Senate tourism and hospitality panel chaired by Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) on the state of the U.S. outdoor recreation industry. Nevada lost about 6 percent of the jobs in its outdoor recreation economy during the pandemic, according to a study commissioned by Get Outdoors Nevada and the Nevada Outdoor Business Coalition and cited by Rosen.

Rosen agreed that more funding is needed to help recreation services rebound. 

“Our nation’s outdoor economy is still hurting and Congress, we have a role to play in helping rebuild it,” Rosen said at the hearing. “We must provide better funding for land management agencies and local communities so that they can better protect and maintain public lands and serve visitors to them. Without adequate staffing and resources, we won’t be able to continue enjoying the outdoors or have a healthy outdoor tourism future.”

Funds would help an industry that took it on the chin last year. Travel and tourism visitor volume and spending in Nevada both dropped by more than 50 percent in 2020, and employment in the sector fell by more than 24 percent, according to Robertson. He said the pandemic negatively affected guides and outfitters, campground and marina owners, outdoor recreation concessions and non-profit education organizations, among others. 

Outdoor tourism is a significant part of Nevada’s economy. In 2019, before the pandemic, it accounted for 60,000 jobs and 3.1 percent of the state's gross domestic product (GDP). That is a full percentage point more than the 2.1 percent national average, Robertson said.

The Silver State has a variety of major outdoor recreation destinations, including two national monuments, Gold Butte and Basin and Range. 

While there were losses in some areas, the pandemic did drive increases in other areas of the industry, spurred by people looking for relatively safer activities that did not have the risk of contagion carried by indoor activities.

According to Robertson, there was a 40 percent increase in 2020 in dispersed camping on general forest lands and a more than 70 percent increase in visits to wilderness areas. Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in a national forest outside of a designated campground.

But those increases put pressures on outdoor resources and highlighted the need for increased land management funds, Robertson said. 

“What it does is create resource impacts that are unfunded, basically,” Robertson said. “Those resources need to be managed to be maintained well in order to not be deteriorating.”

That dynamic at Lake Tahoe was also highlighted during the hearing. The alpine lake area typically gets three times more visitors than neighboring Yosemite National Park, despite being only a third of the size of Yosemite. 

“It was magnified,” Robertson said of the pandemic boost in visitation to Tahoe, adding that there were “detrimental effects on the environmental quality of lake clarity.” 

“There's a lot of positive associated with that growth, but there are some negative impacts as well, one of which is that the federal land management agencies for example, don't have enough funding to deal with that increased visitation,” Robertson continued. 

Robertson also said that federal investment and economic development in rural communities is another key factor in bringing back the outdoor recreation industry. 

One example he gave was the Environmental Protection Agency’s Recreation Economy for Rural Communities. The program, launched in 2019, provides economic development funding to help rural communities revitalize their economies through outdoor recreation.

Robertson hopes that the program gets expanded and augmented with other similar programs at the Department of Agriculture.

During the hearing, Robertson and other industry experts also made a case for more affordable housing and better broadband connectivity for those who work at the national parks and live in surrounding communities.

“It's becoming an intractable problem because, especially for state and federal land management agency staff, they're being priced out of the housing that's available near the work, right?” Robertson said. “That's a significant problem from a recruitment and retention standpoint.”

Rosen also asked whether a lack of daycare options, in addition to affordable housing, was a problem for attracting workers. Joe Henry, the executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism in Minnesota, said the two topics are among the biggest issues when it comes to finding workers. 

“If you have kids, it eliminates so many workers,” Henry said. “They go hand in hand, and they're both very big issues across our entire state.”

All of the panel’s witnesses also agreed that getting better broadband connectivity in rural areas, a top issue for Rosen, would benefit the outdoor tourism industry. 

“Those very rural places are oftentimes the gateways to the most beloved outdoor recreation destinations in the state,” Robertson said. “But in order for them to take advantage of the recreation and economic development opportunities, we really need to increase their connectivity.”

Last week, Rosen signed onto a letter with 19 other Senate Democrats calling on the Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to share data with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in order to improve broadband connectivity.

“Millions of households remain unconnected either because broadband infrastructure has not been built to their homes or the price of broadband services is out of reach for them,” the letter said. “We need a collaborative, cross-government approach to address this gap.” 

Biden administration releases report seeking to address tensions as metals needed for EVs, energy transition drive new mining

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

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In early 2020, an electric-vehicle charging station came online in Orovada, a small agricultural community about 45 miles north of Winnemucca. For years now, charging stations for electric vehicles, or EVs, have been popping up across Nevada, in urban and in rural areas. So on its own, there was nothing especially newsworthy about one opening in Orovada.

But over the past few months, as I’ve made trips out to Orovada, I’ve come to view the charging station, tucked behind a Shell station, as important — something of a symbol (though it probably symbolizes different things for different people). The charging station sits behind a Shell station in town that sits near an elementary school and not far from center-pivots irrigating alfalfa.

Orovada is one of the communities near the planned Thacker Pass lithium mine, a project that supporters argue could significantly bolster the country’s domestic supply chain for EV batteries. That is, Thacker Pass lithium could power the EVs that fuel up at charging stations across the country. 

Yet for many who live in Orovada and neighboring communities, the mine is a cause of concern.  Elders from the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe have voiced opposition. A local group of community members in Orovada and Kings River Valley have met to discuss a series of issues. Environmental groups have sued over the project, arguing that federal permitting was rushed.

I’m writing more about the project in the coming weeks. For now, I bring it up because it reflects, to me, the broader tensions around a reality that is getting more attention, everywhere from the national media to the Biden administration: Increased demand for lithium and other minerals — to power the transition from fossil fuels — is driving new mining. Investors and state officials see opportunities, but there remain concerns about the impacts of more mining.

On Tuesday, the Biden administration released a report on supply chains that specifically aims to work out some of these tensions. As Reuters reported, the 250-page White House document stresses the need to “work with allies to secure the minerals needed for electric vehicle batteries and process them domestically in light of environmental and other competing interests.” 

At the same time, the strategy looks for ways to boost the United States’ domestic capabilities for critical mineral production, refining and recycling with strong environmental standards. (The report, as the Reuters story noted, mentions the Thacker Pass mine and Tesla’s lithium play). 

To that end, the White House discusses the need to plan for more mining. It recommends that the Department of Interior lead a working group to find places “where critical minerals could be sustainably and responsibly produced and processed in the United States while adhering to the highest environmental, labor, community engagement, and sustainability standards.” It also directs multiple agencies to find gaps in existing laws related to mine permitting and regulations. 

Exactly what we are looking at in a mining state like Nevada? 

Last month, the International Energy Agency released a highly-publicized report that predicted a significant increase in demand for certain minerals — lithium, copper, cobalt, rare earth elements — driven by goals to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. 

“You have this massive push globally toward electrification,” said Andrew Miller, a product director for Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a firm that closely tracks the lithium market. 

As a result, the lithium market is expected to grow significantly in the next decade, he said. But the question is where this expansion will occur and how long it will take to bring projects online.

Mining companies, as the Wall Street Journal reported, are certainly seeing an opening, and it’s clear from rhetoric aimed at investors relying on environmental, social and governance factors. And Gov. Sisolak, in his State of the State speech this year, touted Nevada’s lithium deposits. 

There is only one active lithium operation in the United States — and it’s in Nevada — at Silver Peak near Tonopah. But there is a lot of exploration in Nevada and in other parts of the U.S.

Yet there remain a number of concerns about the environment footprint of new mines, concerns the Biden document seeks to address.

Patrick Donnelly, the state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, has spent the last two years pushing back against a proposed lithium mine, known as Rhyolite Ridge, near Tonopah. The project threatens a rare wildflower, known as the Tiehm’s buckwheat, found only in Nevada.

But lithium, in general, has begun to occupy more and more of his time. 

“There's a tremendous amount of activity [in Nevada],” Donnelly said on Tuesday. “A lot of it is speculative, but there are more projects than just Rhyolite Ridge and Thacker Pass out there."

Donnelly said his group is not opposed to all projects (in fact, he said “we support domestic lithium mining”) but he stressed that new mining must adhere to environmental standards, and he said federal and state policymakers must carefully plan where to locate them. 

He also advocated looking for technologies to extract lithium that have a smaller environmental footprint than lithium-brine operations and open-pit mining.

As the Pahrump Valley Times reported this year, one company, NeoLith Energy, is exploring direct lithium extraction, a process that could reduce water consumption and the amount land needed for a full-scale lithium extraction plant.

“Without planning, we will keep ending up in controversy and litigation,” he said.

In addition to the federal government looking at the issue, Donnelly said state policymakers should also consider where and when it is appropriate to approve new lithium development.

“We need to deal with this in the very short-term — like this year," he said.


Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

It’s official: On Friday, the governor signed a bill to ban Colorado River water from being used to irrigate decorative turf. We published a feature yesterday on how the bill came to be. 

What happens when Colorado River states draw on their Lake Mead savings accounts? Circle of Blue’s Bret Walton looks at a conservation program, meant to keep more water in Lake Mead, that will be tested with the reservoir forecasted to drop significantly in the coming years.

Energy Secretary will be in Las Vegas this week, via Gary Martin at the Review-Journal. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that the Tiehm’s buckwheat warrants federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. I wrote about what the finding means.

With new law, Las Vegas water agency bets on ‘aggressive municipal water conservation measure' to remove decorative turf, conserve Colorado River supply

The backdrop for the legislation was set hundreds of miles away from Carson City, where the Colorado River meets Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam outside of Las Vegas. 

Over the past two decades, Lake Mead, which holds nearly all of Las Vegas’ water, has dropped more than 100 feet amid drought and overuse. In response, federal regulators expect to declare the first-ever shortage for the Colorado River next year, triggering cuts to Arizona and Nevada’s allocations. 

With Lake Mead approaching critically-low levels, the Southern Nevada Water Authority recently turned to the Legislature to double-down on its existing strategy for using less water: turf removal.

Earlier this year, Las Vegas water planners asked the Legislature to pass a new law that prohibits water-intensive decorative turf within medians, along roads and in business parks. Lawmakers approved it with little opposition and Gov. Steve Sisolak signed the bill on Friday. 

Now, the water authority, which serves the Las Vegas metro area, is tasked with implementing what its general manager, John Entsminger, described as probably “the most aggressive municipal water conservation measure that's been taken in the western United States.” 

For decades, the water authority has been looking at the prolonged drought and preparing for shortages. Officials with the agency stress that they are able to weather the expected cuts because Las Vegas is already consuming less water than it is entitled to use.

But they are also looking to a future where the population of Las Vegas continues to grow — Nevada is one of the fastest-growing states — as climate change poses new challenges for managing an overused river system shared by about 40 million people across the Southwest. 

The legislation, AB356, aims to reduce per capita water use by prohibiting Colorado River water from being used to irrigate ornamental turf not used for a single-family home after 2026. Ornamental, or nonfunctional, turf typically refers to grass that is installed for decorative purposes and is rarely walked on or used.

Entsminger, in a recent interview, said the prohibition would result in significant water savings. The removal of an estimated 3,900 acres of decorative turf could save roughly 9.3 billion gallons of water annually — about 10 percent of the state’s entire Colorado River allotment.

“Being able to save 10 percent of our total water supplies, without really impacting any quality of life, is really a tremendous achievement and a benefit for the overall community,” he said.

In Carson City and elsewhere, politics around water are often fractious. State-backed proposals to change water law died early into the legislative session. But the water authority’s plan earned broad buy-in from rural and urban lawmakers, industry groups and environmental groups, even some of the same people who have criticized the agency’s legislative maneuvering in the past. 

“It’s an old trope in Nevada politics that your enemy one day is your friend the next day,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of Great Basin Water Network, a coalition of water users who supported the effort. “That doesn’t foreclose on the fact that we could be at odds again down the road as it relates to water policy. In this specific case, I was thrilled to work with them.”

Ornamental grass in The Lakes on Monday, June 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Addressing decorative turf

The water authority serves more than 2 million residents and the millions of tourists who come to Las Vegas each year. To understand where the decorative turf is and how much water it uses, the agency uses aerial imaging that reveals where water is evaporating.

“And then we use that data to make estimates of how much [ornamental turf] we think is in each sector,” said Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources for the water authority. 

The agency estimates, for instance, that about 1,500 acres of decorative turf exists within the footprint of multi-family residences, a category that includes apartment buildings. About 1,000 acres of the turf exist at commercial and industrial properties. 

In an arid climate like Las Vegas, one that is only predicted to become warmer as the climate continues to change, the amount of water consumed to irrigate grass can add up quickly. 

A square-foot of grass needs about 73 gallons of water each year to survive. The legislation would require the removal of about 3,900 acres of decorative turf (the final version of the bill exempts single-family residences). Assuming all of the grass is converted to desert landscaping, which uses about 18 gallons each year, the bill would save about 9.3 billion gallons of water.

For years, the water authority has offered cash incentives to residents and businesses looking to convert turf to desert-friendly landscaping. But in an era of cutting back, the program has run into its limits, as Entsminger noted at a water authority board meeting earlier this year.

The agency has met resistance from homeowners associations who see decorative turf as an appealing feature, Entsminger said. At the board meeting, the agency presented one response from the Altura community within Summerlin: “...our community chose Altura for the beautiful green entrance. As we are well aware there is not much of it unless you live on a golf course. With that said, Altura is declining to move forward with the proposed turf replacement.” 

The water authority also encounters other types of challenges in removing decorative turf. Apartment buildings and commercial properties sometimes have a diffuse ownership structure — governed by layers of LLCs — or out-of-state owners who are accustomed to grass-centric landscaping.

Water authority officials say those ownership dynamics can make it challenging for the agency to contact a property owner about decorative turf. In other cases, out-of-state property owners, unfamiliar with the arid climate of the Southwest, might not understand the severity of the issue. 

In all, turf removal has declined since the 2000s and stayed below the water authority’s goal of converting at least 150 acres per year, even after the agency increased the rebates in 2018.

“The era where just carrots are going to get [us to] where we need to get is coming to the end,” Entsminger said during the March board meeting. “We’re going to have to use some sticks.” 

The water authority board, comprising local elected officials, agreed. In addition to the issues around turf removal, Entsminger raised another argument for acting: consumptive use — the total amount of water used by Las Vegas and not recycled in Lake Mead — ticked up in 2020. 

“We’re probably going to have to make some harder decisions this year to right the curve,” said Marilyn Kirkpatrick, who chairs the agency’s board and the Clark County Commission. 

An example of a vegetation classification analysis, which allows the Southern Nevada Water Authority to spot water use. Yellow polygons with markings are used to locate grass. Yellow polygons with no markings are used to show trees. Purple polygons show pools, and blue polygons display pool covers. (Provided courtesy of the Southern Nevada Water Authority)

Flipping the script in Carson City

Before Assemblyman Howard Watts III (D-Las Vegas) was elected to the Legislature and came to chair the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, he worked with the Great Basin Water Network. The advocacy group is best known for fighting against the Las Vegas water authority’s decades-long effort to pump rural groundwater from rural eastern Nevada to urban Las Vegas. 

Now, as chairman of the legislative committee, the roles were reversed. Watts actively helped the water authority get its legislation to the governor’s desk. During an interview in his Carson City office last month, Watts described the new law as “hugely significant in a couple of ways.”

Watts said he viewed the turf removal legislation as “the next step in a paradigm shift for the Southern Nevada Water Authority", one where more emphasis is placed on conservation of its existing Colorado River supplies, rather than importing new supplies.

“I worked for a long time to try and get the authority to move away from the pipeline project in eastern Nevada, which they’ve done,” Watts said. “As a result, they know that the Colorado River is their primary source of water for the foreseeable future — and we need to do more to protect and enhance that source.” 

When the legislative session began in February, none of the proposed bills addressed Colorado River conservation — at least directly.

But one bill, AB356, proposed by the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, looked at water issues more broadly. The bill, as it was originally proposed, aimed to create a conservation credit system for managing water rights. At the same time, there were rumblings that the water authority wanted its own conservation bill.

The market-based approach in AB356, along with companion legislation (AB354) to establish water banks, was received with skepticism from conservationists, ranchers and farmers. They were concerned the state’s proposal was not fully vetted and could lead to speculative behavior.

In that opposition, the water authority saw an opening. 

In April, a few weeks after the agency’s board meeting, water authority lobbyist Andy Belanger proposed an amendment to AB356 that replaced the original bill with the turf removal program. 

At the meeting where the water authority introduced the idea, a group of key players came out to back the amendment: The Vegas Chamber, the Southern Nevada Homebuilders Association and local governments. Environmental advocates quickly backed the plan, too. The Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group, released a supportive statement that same day.

With Watts’ help, AB356 was amended to become the water authority’s bill. It eventually passed unanimously in the Senate. It then passed on a largely party-line 30 to 12 vote in the Assembly, with four Republicans voting in favor. On Friday, Sisolak signed the bill into law.

“It's incumbent upon us, for the next generation, to be more conscious of our conservation and natural resources, water being particularly important,” Sisolak told reporters last week. 

Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka), well-known in the Legislature for having vast knowledge of Nevada water law and being a critic of the water authority’s pipeline project, voted in favor of the bill.

In an interview, he said the numbers the water authority presented spoke for themselves. They showed significant savings.

Goicoechea initially raised concerns that removing that much grass from the valley could increase surface temperatures, but he said he was assured by the water authority’s plans to offset those impacts with the planting of new trees on drip irrigation.

“It clearly is an area that has to be addressed,” he said, referring to nonfunctional turf. 

Assemblyman Howard Watts inside the Legislature on Tuesday, March 9, 2021 in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Setting the stage for a drier future

Now the challenge is implementing the turf removal program.

The legislation leaves much of that up to the water authority’s board of local elected officials. But it also calls for the creation of a Nonfunctional Turf Removal Advisory Committee. Most importantly, it sets a target date about five years from now — Dec. 31, 2026 — for the removal of most of the 3,900 acres of grass.

That year is also important for the Colorado River.

Existing rules for how to manage Lake Mead and the Colorado River expire in 2026. Leaders from the seven states that use the river, Colorado River tribes, environmental groups, agricultural interests and developers are gearing up for negotiations over how water from the river is managed as climate change increases the risk of shortages. 

In a recent interview, Entsminger said the situation is serious, but that the agency is preparing for cuts by lowering demand. The turf removal legislation is one of several programs. He said  removing the 3,900 acres of turf would nearly offset the deepest cuts the water authority agreed to under the Drought Contingency Plan, an agreement that spells out tiered cuts during drought.

“When people see the headlines about the hydrology on the Colorado River, when they read about these looming shortages, I think they need to know that that is serious,” he said. “That is not hyperbole. But we as a community have the tools at our disposal to meet that challenge.”

For developers and environmental groups, there is also another side of an equation: Growth. Eyeing population growth, Clark County is actively looking to increase the Las Vegas footprint.

Conserved water can also serve as a new water supply. Roerink, who leads the Great Basin Water Network, said it was not lost on him that the business community, including homebuilders and the Vegas Chamber, came out in strong support of the legislation to remove decorative turf. But he warned about the rush to put conserved water back into use for homes or new developments. 

“That would be a tragic mistake,” he said. 

Watts acknowledged the concern. Several big-picture trends that are driving growth in Las Vegas and across the Southwest, he noted, and it’s important for policymakers to be prepared. It would be imprudent, he said, to allow growth and do nothing to conserve water. 

“I'll leave it to other people to debate the bigger-picture questions around how and how much we should grow,” Watts said. “But [the bill is] about addressing issues with the resource.”

Watts said his hope is that removing decorative turf could serve “as a model for the southwest and for other Colorado River-dependent communities.” 

A view of Hoover Dam in the daytime
A view of Hoover Dam is seen from the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The regional significance of ripping out grass

In the West, municipal water agencies are wary of comparing their policies, sometimes for good reason. Every municipal water system is unique, even if they rely on the same water source. But many agencies have encouraged their customers to reconsider lawns.

Oftentimes, these rules apply to new development, said Peter Mayer, an expert in municipal water management who runs WaterDM, a consulting firm based in Colorado. What makes the water authority’s turf removal program significant is that it applies to existing decorative turf. 

“The startling part of this proposal is the concept of removing existing turf,” he said.

Mayer said removing ornamental turf could put Las Vegas, which already uses a small amount of Colorado River water, in a powerful position as Colorado River negotiators meet to discuss how to manage the river after 2026. Las Vegas officials can now point to the clear and aggressive measures they have taken to ensure the sustainability of the river. 

“That's a powerful position to take, especially when you've got upstream neighbors, such as Utah and Washington County, where they are proposing additional withdrawals,” he said.

For years, Utah’s Washington County, which includes St. George, has sought to permit a project that would divert Colorado River water from Lake Powell to southern Utah.

There are other less tangible benefits to removing turf. 

Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director for the Audubon Society, said removing decorative turf helps remind people in the Southwest that they live in an arid climate. 

“It helps to change the local population's perception of where they live,” she said. 

Water managers, she noted, are often wary of one-size-fits-all solutions. Different water agencies have different portfolios and demands. For instance, some cities within the Colorado River Basin rely on other water supplies, not just the Colorado River.

"At the same time, I think people can learn from each other, and I'm using people on purpose, because it's both water managers and also landscaping managers and communities,” she said.

In addition to leading the water authority, Entsminger serves as the president of the Colorado River Water Users Association. He declined to say whether other cities should adopt similar turf standards, but he said “everyone on the Colorado River, in all economic sectors, is going to have to use less water.”

"I think everybody has to use less water,” Entsminger said. “And if they want to choose having turf in a traffic circle over some other sector of their economy, then that’s their decision. But our decision is to really focus on the removal of this nonfunctional turf.”

Sprinklers water turf in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 23, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Rare wildflower threatened by lithium mining warrants protection, federal agency finds

A rare plant species found on only about 10 acres in Nevada and at the center of a fight over permitting a lithium mine warrants federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today. 

Environmentalists, clean energy advocates and the mining industry are closely watching how state and federal regulators manage the rare wildflower, which grows on soils rich with lithium, an ingredient needed to support the deployment of more electric vehicles.

Last year, the plant faced massive population loss — more than 50 percent of all plants were found destroyed or damaged. An environmental DNA analysis linked the damage to mammal herbivory, the first time such interactions had been documented. 

Prior to the destruction last year, conservationists were concerned about the threat that mining activity posed to the plant. Ioneer, an Australian-based company, is seeking state and federal permits for an open-pit lithium mine. The company has an active mining claim that overlaps with most of the buckwheat’s range. 

“The potential impact from the proposed project, combined with the loss resulting from the recent herbivory event, would reduce the total Tiehm’s buckwheat population by 70 to 88 percent, or from 43,921 individuals to roughly 5,289–8,696 individuals,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in the finding, a copy of which was released Thursday.

In a press release Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that it is “discussing the conservation needs of the species and the company’s proposed lithium mine” with federal land managers and ioneer. 

Bernard Rowe, managing director for ioneer, said in a statement Thursday that the company is working on a Candidate Conservation Agreement to help protect the wildflower. Rowe said that the company remains “confident that the science strongly supports the coexistence of our vital lithium operation and Tiehm’s buckwheat.”

“Ioneer remains committed to the protection of Tiehm’s buckwheat irrespective of its listing status, and will implement the highest standard of measures to ensure that the species is protected,” Rowe said.

The finding announced on Thursday is a scientific recommendation by federal wildlife managers that listing Tiehm’s buckwheat under the Endangered Species Act is warranted. The finding is only an initial step in granting the species federal protection, a public rulemaking process that the service expects to begin by Sept. 30. 

Since 2019, conservationists and scientists working with the Center for Biological Diversity have urged state and federal agencies to take swift action to protect the rare plant, scattered across a small range outside of Tonopah, its only known habitat on Earth. 

“We’re thrilled that the Biden administration has proposed Endangered Species Act protection for this delicate little flower,” Patrick Donnelly, the group’s Nevada state director said in a press release on Thursday. “Tiehm’s buckwheat shouldn’t be wiped off the face of the Earth by an open-pit mine. The service stepping in to save this plant from extinction is the right call.”

The finding comes after the conservation group took the agency to court. As part of a settlement agreement, the agency said it would issue its finding by May 31. 

Our roads were built for cars, but a new law could start to make them safer for cyclists

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

The 81st Legislative session came to a close Monday night (updates later on in the newsletter). But first: A special shoutout to my colleagues Michelle Rindels, Riley Snyder and Tabitha Mueller who led our legislative coverage with major help from our interns Jannelle Calderón and Sean Golonka. I was in awe of the excellent work they did covering this unusual (half-virtual) but consequential session that ended with a (surprising or maybe not) mining tax. 

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


Throughout the last year, as COVID-19 restrictions limited transportation and exercise options,  more and more people turned to bikes. At this point, the trend has been well-documented in reports of bicycle shortages and in data released by exercise apps that track user fitness.

The trend is welcome news for cycling advocates and transportation planners who have long pushed to make neighborhoods more conducive for getting around using multiple modes of transportation. But it also underscored the need to make roads safer for all who rely on them.

The Nevada Office of Traffic Safety reported 10 cyclist fatalities and 83 pedestrian fatalities in 2020, with the large majority of them occurring in Clark County. That marked an increase from 2019, when there were seven cyclist fatalities and 70 pedestrian fatalities, according to the office.

Last year, on U.S. Highway 95 outside Las Vegas, a box truck killed five cyclists riding with a safety vehicle. It was a tragic incident, and the news rippled across the community — in Las Vegas and elsewhere. As John Glionna wrote in The New York Times this year, it galvanized activists to push for policies aimed at better protecting cyclists and pedestrians on the road. 

The Legislature meets for 120 days every other year. There are systemic issues that lawmakers must grapple with. The budget. Tax policy. Funding for education and health care. All of those things often grab the big headlines, for good reason. But lawmakers in Carson City also pass a flurry of subject-specific bills, often small tweaks that can make a hugely meaningful difference.

SB285 is one of those bills. The legislation, awaiting Gov. Steve Sisolak’s signature, aims to address bicycle and pedestrian safety by making a number of small (but significant) changes to statute. It’s not a panacea, but activists see it as a step in the right direction.

“The goal is to be as inclusive as possible,” said Senator Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), the bill’s sponsor. “The road has to be shared by multiple modes of transportation, and we want to make sure everybody has the ability to get around the way that they so choose.”

Notably, the bill addresses an underlying issue: Driver’s ed. The fact is many people don’t know the rules of the roads for cyclists and pedestrians. SB285 requires driver’s education courses to incorporate rules for other types of transportation, including electric bikes and electric scooters. 

Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones, who worked on the bill, said Tuesday that “education is the most important piece of making sure that our cyclists and pedestrians are safe.” 

But education is only one element of the bill. The legislation also aims to address driving rules and infrastructure. Following what other states have done, the legislation allows drivers to pass bikes in a no-passing zone, if it is safe to do so. The legislation also spells out when it’s not safe for bikers to ride on the rightmost part of the lane — and can accordingly use the full lane.

Clark County, Jones noted, adopted a similar ordinance around managing traffic a few months ago. But, Jones said, “it’s an important step forward to have some baseline across the state.”

Finally, the legislation looks at how transportation is planned and constructed. It adds language around the implementation of “complete streets” programs, which aim to operate roads for all users and incorporate different types of transportation. SB285 states that projects undertaken through such programs must, when possible, “integrate bicycle lands and bicycle routes, facilities and signs into all plans, designs, construction and maintenance of roads.” In addition, the legislation requires designs to consider people of “all ages and abilities.”

“We understand that more people of more varied ages and abilities will start — or continue — to walk and bike when safer streets are provided through programs like complete streets,” Anne Macquarie, representing the Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter, wrote in written testimony last month.

Several other pieces of legislation passed during the session could also make streets safer and more accommodating for different types of transportation. AB54, approved by Sisolak, would create an Advisory Committee on Traffic Safety within the Department of Transportation. AB343 would require large counties (Clark and Washoe) to submit plans to conduct “walking audits” of urban areas with an eye toward public health. And AB362 would allow Clark County’s regional transportation commission to provide microtransit as part of its slate of transportation options. 

Legislative reporter Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.

Here’s what else I’m watching this week:


WATER AND LAND

Lake Mead’s changing shores: Arizona Republic reporter Ian James wrote an excellent piece about the on-the-ground impacts of water-level declines. “At the bustling marinas in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the shifting shorelines require costly and elaborate work: pulling the marinas out with cables and winches, extending power lines and fuel lines, using divers to unhook giant concrete anchors and dispatching barges to lower new anchors into the water.” 

  • An inside look at the Hoover Dam holding back less and less water (Arizona Republic)
  • “Climate science indicates that there will likely be less water in the Colorado River than many had hoped. This is inconvenient for 21st-century decision-makers, and overcoming their resistance may be the hardest challenge of all.” In a new editorial, John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, and Brad Udall, a climate researcher at Colorado State University, stress the need to allow science to guide Colorado River planning and incorporate “worst-case” climate scenarios.
  • Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger testifies on the “real and urgent” drought conditions facing the Colorado River. (Nevada Current)

Picking a new Southern California water chief: The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California considered former water authority General Manager Pat Mulroy to lead the agency. Los Angeles Times reporter Sammy Roth has more on the contested vote and what it means. 

Legislation to require wildlife plans with development: The Legislature passed AB211, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas), aimed at protecting wildlife. The bill requires developers to submit plans about how they intend to offset new development on species habitat. Brian Bahouth, with the Sierra Nevada Ally, has more on the legislation. 

Douglas County commissioners declare drought conditions, via Carson Now.

  • PBS Newshour’s William Brangham and Courtney Norris on the western drought. From the report: “2021 is shaping up to potentially be the driest of all of the drought years in the last century, and definitely one of the driest of the last millennium.”

“We’ve recovered mastodons:” Capital Public Radio’s Rich Ibarra writes about the discovery of an exhaustive fossil deposit. It’s located in California at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.


MINING AND ENERGY

A mining tax compromise: In the final days of the legislative session, a deal emerged on a mining tax that avoided advancing one of three proposed constitutional amendments, which would have gone before voters. My colleagues Riley Snyder and Michelle Rindels reported on the deal, how it advanced and why several Republicans came to vote for the new mining tax. We’ll have more reporting on the tax, what it means and who it affects in the coming weeks.

Energy policy advances out of the Legislature: A major bill SB448, focused on transmission and electric vehicle infrastructure, passed and is on Sisolak’s desk. Riley Snyder wrote more about the bill, and we’ll have a follow-up coming out on that soon. On Monday, the Senate also approved AB383, which sought to address energy efficiency standards in appliances.

Groups file injunction to stop lithium mine: Conservation groups want a federal court judge to issue an injunction that would prevent any construction of the Thacker Pass mine after they said negotiations with land managers and a company fell apart. (Great Basin Resource Watch)

CLIMATE CHANGE

How auto dealers are viewing the state’s efforts to increase emission standards, via the Nevada Current’s Jeniffer Solis. The state held a session on its clean car initiative last week. 

The Truckee Meadows Community College was featured in an Inside Higher Ed piece a few weeks ago looking at how campuses are preparing for the effects of climate change.

Assembly finally moves to close the 'classic car' loophole as end of session looms

The examples are all around. Cars driving around with a “classic vehicle” license plate that are not, by any reasonable definition, classic. That’s because of a 2011 law that redefined a “classic car” to include any vehicle over a certain age that drove less than 5,000 miles. It resulted in a sharp increase in the number of classic cars registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles. 

It also created a loophole for emissions testing. Cars with a “classic vehicle” license plate are not required to pass an emissions test. AB349, legislation backed by Assemblyman Howard Watts III (D-Las Vegas), looked to close the loophole with the goal of improving air quality. 

To fix the problem, the legislation required classic-vehicle drivers to hold classic-car insurance. The bill was received with wide support from environmental groups, the Nevada Public Health Association, the American Lung Association, and health districts in Clark County and Washoe County. They said closing the loophole would reduce pollution and benefit public health.

AB349 made other changes to the state’s vehicle emissions program. It includes provisions to use remote sensing for emissions testing and exempts new, less-polluting cars from emissions testing for the first three years of the vehicle’s life. The bill looked to raise existing fees, bringing them closer to their inflation values, and use funds to help drivers repair and replace old cars.

Going into the last week of the session, lawmakers moved to adopt an amendment authorizing county commissions to impose fees related to emission reduction — a change aimed at removing the constitutional requirement for a two-thirds vote on the bill, as it previously raised taxes and fees.

After the amendment was approved, the Assembly passed the legislation 25-17 in a largely party-line vote. Assemblyman Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) joined Republicans in opposing the legislation.

The amended legislation removes the fee changes, but it allows Clark and Washoe counties to impose new fees that support vehicle emission reductions. The amendment requires that any new funds be used by local air quality agencies, with at least 50 percent of the funding going “to reduce emissions from a motor vehicle for the benefit of historically underserved communities.” 

But the revenue element of the legislation, Watts said, was critical because it provided a funding pathway for drivers to ensure their vehicles comply with emissions testing requirements.

“The whole reason that I'm working on this revenue piece is to be able to provide a way to help people, sooner rather than later, be able to afford and transition into cleaner vehicles,” he said.

Watts said the legislation, as amended, is an important step in addressing air pollution.

“It’s hugely important to the community,” Watts said on Tuesday. “We know that transportation, and particularly vehicles, are the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. We know that it's contributing to all kinds of things that worsen in public health — heat, drought, wildfire, etc… So I think anything that we can do to reduce that is going to be hugely beneficial.”

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

“It's really bad for us:” Water managers prepare for extreme drought across the state

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


For the past few weeks, I’ve heard variations of the same line: “This is one of the worst water years I’ve seen in a long time.” The drought is visible on the ground. There is less snow on the mountains and less water running off into streams. Soil is dry and reservoirs are far below full.

Exactly how challenging is this water year, and how is Nevada responding to it? For this week’s newsletter, we include perspectives from across the state. It’s important to note that drought affects different parts of the state in different ways, depending on where water is coming from and how it’s being used. But with extreme to exceptional drought affecting about 75 percent of Nevada, arid conditions are not limited to only a few pockets of the state.

Live in Las Vegas, Reno or Carson City, and you might not always think about where your water is coming from when you turn on the tap. In many cases, it starts with the snowpack. The water that comes out of your sink and shower often comes from snow melting into rivers and streams. 

And this year, across the state, the amount of water flowing through streams is projected to be far lower than average. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which compiles statewide water supply reports, expects that streamflow will be 7 to 61 percent of average for May to July (the big range accounts for different conditions across the state). 

Jeff Anderson, an NRCS water supply specialist, who helped compile and prepare the report, said the forecast has decreased each month, in part because Nevada saw little rain and snow during the spring. In the 12-month period between May 2020 through April 2021, Nevada and other Western states recorded their driest years since 1895. But that’s not the full story. 

Snowpack was well-below normal, but the soil underneath it was also dry. When soils are dry, it reduces the amount of water that makes it into streams. Instead, more water is absorbed by the parched landscape, and with little precipitation last fall, soil moisture was below average.

“The soil moisture is making the runoff different than it otherwise would be,” Anderson said. 

With less water making it into streams and rivers, urban and rural water users across the state are closely watching the situation and implementing drought measures.

In Northern Nevada, the Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA), which serves Reno and Sparks, held a press conference last week to announce new conservation measures, including additional public outreach, lawn watering restrictions from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and hiring more “water watchers” to patrol whether residents are complying with the conservation rules. 

TMWA gets most of its water from the mountains around Lake Tahoe, where snow melts into the tributaries that form the Truckee River. At a critical point on the river, flows are expected to be about 22 percent of average, and water managers plan to pull water stored in reservoirs. 

“Over the last two months, these forecasts have just deteriorated significantly,” said Bill Hauck, a senior hydrologist for TMWA and the agency’s water supply administrator.

By August, Hauck said the amount of water flowing through Reno will drop off noticeably. But he also stressed that the water agency is prepared for drought and has water stored in reservoirs.

In and around Las Vegas, the situation is a little more complicated. Las Vegas gets about 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River, fed by snowpack from the Rockies. 

On the Colorado River, the situation was similar to the one that played out across Nevada. Dry soils decreased runoff, and only about 26 percent of average is expected to reach Lake Powell, a key reservoir. Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas, is projected to drop below a key threshold, triggering the first ever federally declared shortage — and cutbacks for Arizona and Nevada.

Officials with the Southern Nevada Water Authority have long prepared for cutbacks. In addition, the water authority is pushing an aggressive conservation measure through the Legislature. The bill, AB356, would remove about 5,000 acres of decorative grass by 2026. Water officials expect the conservation push to save more than 10 percent of the state’s Colorado River allocation. 

“When people see the headlines about the hydrology on the Colorado River, when they read about these looming shortages, I think they need to know that that is serious,” John Entsminger, the water authority’s general manager, said in an interview earlier this week. “That is not hyperbole. But we as a community have the tools at our disposal to meet that challenge.”

Farmers and ranchers are also feeling the early impacts of the drought in rural parts of the state. In Lovelock, which sits at the end of the Humboldt River, farmers are seeing less water, said Ryan Collins, who leads the Pershing County Water Conservation District. 

Rye Patch, a reservoir that the district relies on to store water, is at about 32 percent of capacity, according to the NRCS water supply outlook. Last year, it was about 85 percent full.

“It's really bad for us,” Collins said. “We're going to use what little we have in the reservoir.”

Dan McEvoy, a researcher with the Western Regional Climate Center at the Desert Research Institute, said he has observed this drought intensify faster than the one that started in 2012.

“We're in our second year into the drought, and we’re already seeing similar impacts to what we saw four years into the last drought," McEvoy said.

Here's what else I'm watching this week:


CARSON CITY AND CONGRESS

Governor signs bill to create state designation for “dark skies:” Gov. Steve Sisolak signed legislation, sponsored by Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall, to create a program for awarding a “Dark Sky Designation.” “The signing and implementation of the Dark Skies Bill celebrates this uniquely Nevadan asset by encouraging protection of this public resource, while also sharing it with visitors to our state and thereby increasing tourism opportunities for rural cities and counties,” Marshall said. Terri Russell from KOLO 8 has more on the legislation and the bill signing.

A mining tax deal? The Clark County Education Association is dropping cryptic hints. 


WATER AND LAND

“It’s literally the foundational shrub:” Excellent piece by Science Friday’s Lauren Young looking at the ecological importance of the sagebrush sea and the many threats facing it. 

Why water communication is important: The Record-Courier’s Kurt Hildebrand reported on some startling survey numbers: “Not quite a tenth of the residents living in the Carson River Watershed could name the river in a recent survey. Carson River Subconservancy Watershed Program Manager Brenda Hunt told Douglas County commissioners on Thursday that 62 percent either didn’t know or think they lived in a watershed at all, and that 70 percent thought they didn’t affect the watershed, or only had a slight impact.”

A dispatch from the Extraterrestrial Highway: Former Sen. Harry Reid wrote about UFOs in the New York Times: “Let me be clear: I have never intended to prove that life beyond Earth exists. But if science proves that it does, I have no problem with that. Because the more I learn, the more I realize that there’s still so much I don’t know.”

Ammon Bundy is running for governor as a Republican...in Idaho, the Idaho Statesman’s Hayat Norimine reports. Last year, Bundy was banned from stepping onto the Capitol grounds.


ENERGY AND CLIMATE

A big deal for those watching domestic mining: Reuters reporters Ernest Scheyder and Trevor Hunnicutt are reporting that the Biden administration is shifting course on its earlier statements that it would emphasize the domestic procurement of minerals needed for the energy transmission. From the story: “U.S. President Joe Biden will rely on ally countries to supply the bulk of the metals needed to build electric vehicles and focus on processing them domestically into battery parts, part of a strategy designed to placate environmentalists, two administration officials with direct knowledge told Reuters.”

Remember that secret shipment of plutonium? The plutonium is still in Nevada. Reporter Colin Demarest with the Aiken Standard has an update on efforts to move the plutonium.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved a geothermal project in Washoe County.

Reno-based Ormat is acquiring two existing geothermal projects and a transmission line. 

Rental assistance, wildfires, and the last two weeks of the Legislature

This week on IndyMatters, Assistant Editor Michelle Rindels talks with State Treasurer Zach Conine about fine-tuning a backlogged rental assistance program. Then, Environmental Reporter Daniel Rothberg talks about what’s ahead for wildfire season with Host Joey Lovato. After that, Producer Jacob Solis talks with Legislative Reporter Riley Snyder and Assistant Editor Michelle Rindels about what’s in store in the waning days of the legislative session. At the end of the show, Reporter Riley Snyder and Intern Sean Golonka discuss the NBA playoffs.

0:00 - Intro

1:25 - Rental Assistance

8:05 - Wildfires

14:35 - Legislative update

28:35 - Basketball with Riley and Sean

33:00 - Outro/Credits

Fire managers prepare for summer blazes as the state faces severe drought conditions

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

I’m writing this newsletter from Winnemucca. For the past month, I’ve been reporting out a story on the Thacker Pass lithium mine, which the Trump administration approved in mid-January. 

I’m getting a lot of community perspectives about the project, which would be located outside of Orovada. On Monday evening, I attended a public meeting about having the mining company relocate and rebuild the Orovada Elementary School because of safety concerns with more trucks hauling materials and driving through the area. A lot of perspectives from parents. My story should be coming out in a few weeks. In the meantime, send me any thoughts you have about the project.

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


Nevada is facing its worst drought in two decades. 

Nearly 95 percent of the state is facing severe to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. In April, most of the Great Basin experienced above-normal temperatures with little precipitation. As with much of the West, Nevada saw well below-average rain and snow for the water year, which begins in October. Snowpack peaked early, and snow is melting quickly. 

Gina McGuire Palma, a meteorologist who forecasts fire in the Great Basin, presented those statistics at a media wildfire briefing last week. The dry conditions, she said, are important for the forecasts facing fire managers as they start planning for the warm summer months.

When it comes to fire and drought in the Great Basin, the story is complicated. Although drought means less moisture, it also means that low-elevation grasses are less abundant and productive. That’s important because those low-elevation grasses fuel many of the large-scale fires across the Great Basin. The amount of acreage burned and drought are not always related in the Great Basin. But that doesn’t necessarily mean less potential for a bad fire season. 

What it means is that in a drought year, like the one we are seeing, the fire risk tends to be in mid-to-higher elevation areas, McGuire Palma said at the briefing. Another big factor is where the fire is. A smaller acreage fire in a highly-populated area or in sensitive wildlife habitat can have long-lasting effects. And there have been notable fires during drought years before. 

Prior to the media briefing, state, federal and local agencies briefed Gov. Steve Sisolak about fire risks facing the state. At the briefing, Sisolak described wildfire as “one of Nevada’s most challenging issues,” but he said agencies are “better coordinated than ever before.”

Kacey KC, the state forester for the Nevada Division of Forestry, said that better coordination is important in the Great Basin, where much of the land is managed by a variety of agencies. The federal government manages about 85 percent of land within Nevada, and one agency, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, manages about 65 percent.

“We learned through many years of being jurisdictionally challenged that we had to work better together,” KC said. “And we actually also realized, awhile back, that not only do we have to be highly effective at wildfire suppression, but also need to work harder at really targeting our limited resources and funding at the areas that are most critical to reduce risk in.”

In all of this, humans play a big role.

Sisolak, in his remarks, underscored the effects that climate change is having on fires: “While wildfires are a natural part of Nevada’s landscape, the fire season is starting earlier each year and ending later. Climate change and cycles of drought are considered key drivers of this trend.” 

In addition to climate change, the vast majority of fires — about 67 percent — were linked to human activity last year. Sisolak implored residents to be aware of the risks of starting a fire.

“What we can do as residents in Nevada is be aware,” Sisolak said. 

More reporting on this from KNPR and the Associated Press. And tips for preventing fires.

Here’s what else I’m watching this week:


CARSON CITY AND CONGRESS

A massive energy bill drops at the Legislature: Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) dropped a major energy infrastructure bill last week with less than three weeks left in the session, as my colleague Riley Snyder reported. The legislation, presented at a roundtable with Sisolak and NV Energy, aims to increase the state’s transmission capacity (crucial for putting more renewables on the grid) and to require more investment in charging for electric vehicles. Both are central to the governor’s climate strategy, and backers of the bill argue that it is vital in order to ensure the state plays a central role in the transition from fossil fuels toward renewable energy. 

  • Most environmental groups support the broad components of the bill: They want to see more deployment of renewable energy, and transmission is going to be an important element of that. At a hearing Monday, several groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Nevada Conservation League, came out in favor of the legislation. 
  • But some groups believe the legislation shortcuts comprehensive planning: For months, environmental groups have been pushing state agencies to identify land where energy development is appropriate and where it conflicts with other priorities, including recreation and wildlife habitat. They want to see policymakers working to prioritize new energy development, such as solar fields, on already disturbed land. The transmission lines matter, they say, because their alignment and siting often dictate where projects go. These groups want to see more comprehensive planning when it comes to building out a more renewable grid. Based on my reporting, they are not alone. Public land has many constituencies, and permitting conflicts are not limited to environmental issues.
  • There is also the question of regulatory oversight: The legislation dropped with only a few weeks left in the session. But given the presence of the utility at the unveiling of the complex bill, it is clear that it came out of negotiations between legislative leaders, NV Energy and the Sisolak administration. It’s worth noting that the Nevada Resorts Association came out in “technical opposition” because of the late bill introduction and sought changes that “retains authority and regulatory discretion to protect customers from increased rates and making projects more expensive than they need to be.”

Swamp cedar bill passes both houses: The Senate on Monday passed legislation to grant state protection to unique stands of low-elevation Rocky Mountain juniper trees in Spring Valley (known as Bahsahwahbee in Shoshone). The legislation, introduced by Assemblyman Howard Watts III (D-Las Vegas), would protect the trees, known as the swamp cedars, that stand as a sacred and spiritual place for Shoshone and Goshute communities. Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) was the only Republican senator who voted in favor of the bill, despite making remarks that questioned the accuracy of accounts of massacres that occurred at Bahsahwahbee and angering Indigenous advocates, as my colleague Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez reported.

A few pieces of legislation I’m watching as the session nears a close:

  • AB356: Banning Colorado River water from use in irrigating decorative turf
  • AB349: Ending a loophole allowing “classic cars” from evading smog rules
  • AB148: Preventing “bad actors” from getting a new mine permit
  • SCR10: Creating an interim study on hydrogen and lithium as energy sources 
  • SCR11: Creating an interim study on Sisolak’s “Innovation Zone” proposal
  • AB95: Adding an Indigenous representative to the interim public lands committee
  • AB146: Establishing a right to clean water, aims to better regulate indirect pollution 
  • SB285: Better integrating bikes into our road infrastructure
  • AB97: Creating a working group to look at “forever chemicals” known as PFAS
  • SB430: Restructuring the State Infrastructure Bank to fund climate-related projects
  • SJR1, AJR1, AJR2: The mining tax resolutions. Anything could happen. 

(This is by no means exhaustive. Let me know what I’m missing here — daniel@thenvindy.com. h/t to the Nevada Conservation League, which puts together a weekly list of bills to watch). 

Reauthorizing the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act: Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto introduced legislation last week to fund environmental protection at Lake Tahoe. The legislation has the backing of the entire Nevada delegation, the Tahoe Daily Tribune reported last week.


WATER AND LAND

“We’re going to have one of the lowest runoffs that we’ve seen:” SFGATE’s Julie Brown writes about low elevations at Tahoe, with an interview from the Truckee River Water Master. 

Diving to clean-up Lake Tahoe trash: “A team of scuba divers on Friday completed the first dive of a massive, six-month effort to rid the popular Lake Tahoe of fishing rods, tires, aluminum cans, beer bottles and other trash accumulating underwater,” the Associated Press reports. 

Biden considers new sage grouse rules: Associated Press reporter Matthew Brown reported last week that the Biden administration is considering a temporary ban on new mining across certain areas of public land in the West as part of efforts to recover the imperiled Greater sage grouse, which has seen significant population declines over the last half-century. From the story: “The Interior Department review comes in response to a federal court order and is expected to cover millions of acres of sagebrush habitat considered crucial to the bird’s long-term survival.”

Tracking a federal wild horse adoption program: “...records show that instead of going to good homes, truckloads of horses were dumped at slaughter auctions as soon as their adopters got the federal money. A program intended to protect wild horses was instead subsidizing their path to destruction.” Incredible reporting from the New York Times’ Dave Philipps.

Federal regulators to rule on Tiehm’s buckwheat: “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to make a determination on the listing of a rare Nevada wildflower as an endangered species by the end of the month,” reports Jeniffer Solis with the Nevada Current.

Water data is as important as ever: An example from California. 

For the mappers out there: A new, peer-reviewed Colorado River map is out. 

For the mappers out there (Part II): What is a summit? Great New York Times piece.

ENERGY AND CLIMATE

Google’s big geothermal announcement: Google is partnering with energy startup Fervo to develop a “next-generation geothermal project” that would help the company power its data centers and infrastructure in Nevada. Fervo expects to begin adding geothermal energy to the Nevada grid in 2022, according to a Google blog post, and the company views the project as a crucial part in its transition toward meeting its “moonshot” carbon-free energy goals by 2030.

  • From Google’s blog post: “Not only does this Fervo project bring our data centers in Nevada closer to round-the-clock clean energy, but it also acts as a proof-of-concept to show how firm clean energy sources such as next-generation geothermal could eventually help replace carbon-emitting power sources around the world.” 
  • “Next-gen:” In the blog post, the project is referred to as “next-generation” geothermal, distinguished from conventional geothermal because it uses advanced drilling, fiber-optic sensing and data analytics (the press release mentions AI and machine learning). But the project appears to be one step in the company’s larger plan to make geothermal more viable. At a keynote for Google I/O, an annual developer conference, CEO Sundar Pichai said geothermal “is not widely used today, and we want to change that.” 
  • That last quote is a big deal: As I’ve written in this newsletter before, developers have long seen an opening to deploy more geothermal, and Nevada is uniquely positioned. It has expertise, with a top geothermal developer headquartered here, and according to the U.S. Geological Survey, high potential for more geothermal development. Having a major company make a high-profile investment in geothermal is pretty significant.

Bury power lines? News 4-Fox 11’s Ben Margiott asked a top NV Energy executive.

An important utility debate is brewing: Los Angeles Times reporter Sammy Roth writes about a national debate over whether utilities should be allowed to charge their ratepayers for trade association fees, especially when those trade associations engage in advocacy activities.