With slow start to winter, drought conditions could linger in 2021

A view of Hoover Dam in the daytime

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Nevada is the driest state in the nation, but 2020 — true to form — was especially dry. 

In fact, Nevada and Utah witnessed their driest year on record in 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported on Friday. Things are not looking up in 2021, at least not yet. Even if things do rebound, drought is shaping up to be a big weather story in 2021. 

To learn more about what’s going on, I talked with Dan McEvoy, a researcher with the Western Regional Climate Center. He said my timing was good: “It’s definitely worth talking about it now.”

“The two driest states had their driest years on record, which meant there was very little water in the system last year,” McEvoy said. “We need some big storms to come through the second half of the winter and this spring or else there are definitely going to be some drought impacts.”

Drought is not necessarily about a month or a year. It’s the steady creep of below-average months of precipitation, dry soils and a thirsty atmosphere that wants to evaporate more water. 

“When we move into drought, it happens slower in time,” said Jeff Anderson, a hydrologist who helps measure and forecast snowpack with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The problem is we entered this year at a precipitation deficit.

"We're coming out of a drought year from last year, where precipitation was below normal. The snowpack was below normal,” said McEvoy, who works with the Desert Research Institute and studies drought behavior. “That pattern has really persisted to start the water year this year.”

According to the U.S Drought Monitor, nearly the entire state — about 99.71 percent — is in some form of drought, and about 72 percent of the state is in extreme or exceptional drought. 

Nevada is not alone in this. Those numbers mirror the situation across much of the Southwest and the Colorado River watershed, which supports about 40 million people in seven states.

Drought affects all of Nevada, although in different ways. Urban areas, including Reno and Las Vegas, are often insulated from the immediate consequences of a short-term drought because water providers have long-term drought plans and use reservoirs to store water in tough years. Yet drought can place stress on the water system, and even affect politics (more on that below).

In other parts of the state, drought can have immediate effects on the economy — on things like grazing rights and recreation. So far, ski resorts in Lake Tahoe have been able to operate with a few storms bringing snow. But what happens the rest of the winter is crucial for the rest of 2021.

“If the storms can line up,” Anderson said, “we can make a dramatic recovery.”

So how likely is it that we recover this year? It depends on where you are. Mike Dettinger, a hydrologist who studies precipitation in California and Nevada, has a model that looks at the 70-year record of past precipitation to forecast the likelihood of getting back to average levels. 

Given conditions at this point in the season, he said, depending on where you are in the West, there is a 5 percent to 35 percent chance of getting back to normal this year. In eastern Nevada, for instance, it’s at about 10 percent. Chances of normal precipitation improves a bit in western Nevada. But, he notes, “it’s going to take a real whopper of a Miracle March to bail us out.”

Dry conditions amplify in other ways, too. Even if “miracle” storms sweep through the West in February in March and precipitation returns to an average, it does not guarantee an average water supply in many places. That’s because much of the West’s water comes from runoff from snow. When snow melts, water fills rivers. Those rivers are used by municipalities and to irrigate farmland. But when soils are dry, it can make runoff less efficient, especially early in the season.

“We're heading into the upcoming runoff season with very high soil moisture conditions,” said Cody Moser, a hydrologist for the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. “As it relates to runoff, the drier soil moisture conditions are going to generate less efficient runoff when it occurs.”

But Moser, as with others, said there is still time to turn things around. 

“It’s still a little early to give up on the upcoming season,” he said.

There is a social dynamic to this. How policymakers view water issues is often dependent on current conditions. One thing about drought conditions is they can prompt elected officials and water managers to take action. With the Legislature going into session Feb. 1 and negotiations beginning on the Colorado River, it’s a dynamic that will be worth watching.

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

The Steamboat Ditch Trail and a pipeline? “Save the Steamboat Ditch Trail.” That was the message that went out across social media over the weekend. Reno residents are concerned about an early-stage project to upgrade water infrastructure along a 30-mile stretch of canals that makes its way from a diversion on the Truckee River and travels through sections of Reno. 

Where there is water, there is vegetation and wildlife — and where the Steamboat Ditch flows, there is both. The area adjacent to the ditch has become a popular trail for hikers and runners. Now residents are concerned about its future. The Natural Resources Conservation Service is in the early stages of a project that they say is needed to bolster flood protection and to improve water management. There are several options on the table, but one possibility includes turning sections of the ditch into a pipeline, affecting the vegetation and wildlife habitat along the trail. 

Although a pipeline is on the table, the federal agency has not yet said that it supports building one. It’s only one of several possibilities to address issues related to flooding and managing the water that flows through the ditch, according to Michael Callahan, an engineer for the agency. For now, the agency is still in an early-stage process known as “scoping.” In this phase of the process, the agency solicits public comment to decide what to do next. The public can submit a comment at truckeeriver@nvwatershed.com until Feb. 16. This is Reno’s Jeri Davis has more.

Coming up: The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection is hosting a virtual listening session this morning on efforts to adopt stronger vehicle emission standards. 

Right-wing extremism and Western roots: After pro-Trump insurrectionists violently stormed the Capitol last Wednesday, multiple reporters pointed to echoes of their extremism across the West. 

For High Country News, Carl Segerstrom wrote: “The anti-government occupations bookending the rise and fall of Trump’s presidency show the mainstreaming of right-wing extremism in the United States. They also portend the potential for future conflicts here in the West.” It’s a piece that is very much worth your time. NPR’s Kirk Siegler also did a story. Emily Cureton and Ryan Haas from Oregon Public Radio explored another critical angle — how elected leaders have enabled extremism: “From county commissioners and state lawmakers to a member of the U.S. Congress, some Oregonians in power have enabled the extreme beliefs and conspiracy theories fueling political violence carried out in the name of President Donald Trump.” 

We are working on a story about the undercurrents of this extremism in Nevada.

Albemarle expansion: Lithium company Albemarle announced plans on Friday to expand its production at its Silver Peak extraction facility near Tonopah. The announcement comes amid increased demand for lithium, needed for electric vehicles and batteries, both technologies that are seen as solutions to address climate change. Silver Peak is the only active lithium extraction operation in the United States, although several more projects, including in Nevada, could come online in the next few years. I’ll be writing more about Nevada and the lithium market soon.

A Greater sage grouse review and a new administration: “The Trump administration has completed a review of plans to ease protections for a struggling bird species in seven states in the U.S. West, but there's little time to put the relaxed rules for industry into action before President-elect Joe Biden takes office,” the Associated Press’ Matthew Brown reports

“No get-rich-quick scheme:” The Review-Journal’s Colton Lochhead reports on hemp farming in Nevada. The number of growers fell by half last year and farmed acreage fell by even more. 

Continued deregulation: In the final days of the Trump administration, federal environmental regulators have continued a steady and quiet march to roll back regulations in favor of industry:

  • The Trump administration rolled back protections for migratory birds, affecting liability for companies responsible for bird deaths that stem from environmental hazards, including oil spills and toxic waste ponds, The New York Times’ Lisa Friedman reported. 
  • The EPA finalized a rule last week that restricts what scientific studies can be used in regulating pollution, a move that was criticized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. More from NPR’s Rebecca Hersher. 
  • Last week, Reuters’ Ernest Scheyder reported that the administration moved to loosen mining restrictions, fast-track permitting and approve several new projects.

Mining case before the Supreme Court: From KTVN, “The Nevada Supreme Court says two members of the Lyon County Board of Commissioners did not have a significant enough private interest in Comstock Mining to abstain from the vote.” This strikes me as an important case, more generally, for defining what constitutes a conflict for elected officials in local government.

A Justice Department with environmental chops: President-elect Biden’s pick for attorney general, Merrick Garland, has spent years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C., a panel that often rules on the merits of environmental regulations. That experience could be significant in leading a Biden Justice Department, Dino Grandoni of The Washington Post reports. 

Update: This story was corrected at 9:14 a.m. on Jan. 14 to indicate that the Clean Cars Nevada listening session was Thursday morning. An earlier version of the story said it would be held in the afternoon.

The curious case of a rare plant's destruction raises further questions about the extinction crisis, climate change and the role of humans

No one can say for sure when the first Tiehm’s buckwheat plants were destroyed last summer.

But what is clear is that by September, multiple surveys had reported large-scale destruction to about half of Earth’s only known population of the sensitive species, Eriogonum tiehmii, a rare Great Basin wildflower caught in the crosshairs of a heated political fight over permitting a mine.

When the destruction was disclosed in September 2020, it lit off a powder keg, and the question quickly turned to who was responsible for the widespread damage: Was it humans or rodents?

State and federal agencies — in addition to environmentalists — began investigating the case.

What struck biologists was not only the scale of the damage but the seemingly targeted nature of the attack and the pace at which it occurred, a time range amounting to a geologic blink. What caused the damage, and why target this particular species?

Ben Grady, a botanist at Ripon College and the president of the Eriogonum Society (eriogonum is the scientific name for buckwheat family), described the scale of the destruction as stunning. 

“We've taken something and basically cut the population in half,” Grady said. 

The Tiehm’s buckwheat is distributed across roughly 10 acres of land at the base of the Silver Peak Range near Tonopah. Its habitat is extreme, even for the Great Basin, and a passerby could not be blamed for writing it off as inhospitable. But through the long process of evolution, the plant has eked out an isolated existence on patchy outcrops of washed-out clay. 

So what had changed to cause such widespread destruction to the species all at once? 

Several pieces of evidence point to herbivory by rodents as a cause — perhaps the main cause — of Tiehm’s buckwheat damage. But no one was there, and no one can say for sure how it all happened. It’s likely that a degree of uncertainty about the cause will linger over the incident.

People want a clear narrative, but this is not a story of definitive scientific conclusions. Multiple scientists, in interviews, said the technical work of understanding the Tiehm’s buckwheat and why the destruction occurred is only starting. Meanwhile, the rare plant is at even greater risk.

The curious case of Tiehm’s buckwheat raises questions about the extinction crisis, the role of humans and even climate change. Dig deeper, and there is an unfolding scientific mystery that is closely tied to the climate politics of permitting a mine for lithium, a much-needed mineral to support the electric vehicles and massive batteries required for a decarbonized economy. 

“When everything initially came out in September, there was a lot of controversy in terms of what happened and how it happened,” Grady recalled. “But the more jarring thing to me, after the dust settled, was we lost a lot of plants here, and this thing is in a heck of a lot of trouble.”

The Tiehm's buckwheat in the Silver Peak Range
The Tiehm's buckwheat in the Silver Peak Range on Aug 29, 2019. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

The initial suspect

The Earth is in the middle of its sixth mass extinction, and there is one primary culprit: humans. In the case of the Tiehm’s buckwheat damage, human activity became an immediate suspect. 

As rare desert flora goes, the Tiehm’s buckwheat was already a well-known species by the time its population crashed. In the months prior, the diminutive yet charismatic plant had caught the attention of botanists, environmental activists, land managers and miners across the West. 

Even before the large-scale destruction was first reported last August, the Tiehm’s buckwheat faced emerging threats from human activity. Environmentalists said mining exploration and the development of a proposed lithium mine posed an existential threat to the buckwheat species. 

The area around the buckwheat, known as Rhyolite Ridge, had seen a sharp increase in human activity, with an Australian-based lithium company, ioneer, seeking to permit the lithium mine.

In late 2019, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned state and federal regulators to protect the plant from extinction. The mining company pushed back, arguing that a mitigation proposal for Tiehm’s buckwheat would maintain the species and emphasizing the need for more lithium in supply chains for batteries and electric vehicles. The rhetoric escalated over the following year. 

After the damage was uncovered, an early field survey by the Center for Biological Diversity, the group leading the charge to protect the plant as endangered, found evidence of footprints and new trails leading to the buckwheat. Their fieldwork suggested damage consistent with humans. The implication was that the mining company could somehow be responsible for the damage.

“The buckwheats appear to have been dug up by small shovels or spades,” the group reported.

Naomi Fraga, a well-known botanist and the director of conservation at the California Botanic Garden, helped author the report with the group’s state director, Patrick Donnelly. When Fraga observed the damage, she said her immediate thought was that humans dug up the plant. The destruction varied from plant to plant, and it affected plants far away from one another.

“That is one of the largest puzzles that is hard to reconcile with a natural event: the targeted nature, how specific it was and that it occurred across a whole range of the species,” she said. 

Not all biologists were in agreement, and the investigation took a turn to scat.

Naomi Fraga, a botanist and director of conservation at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, looks at a Tiehm's buckwheat on Aug. 29, 2019 (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

If the genes fit

As the investigation proceeded, agency officials and the mining company pushed back on the theory of human-caused damage. Several surveys showed lines of evidence pointing to rodent activity. Perhaps a dry summer forced critters to consume food that they would not normally eat.

In fact, when the damage was reported to the state by a UNR graduate student in September, the student noted evidence of rodent damage and wrote in a report that “we did not notice any human or large animal tracks” in the immediate area. On follow-up surveys, biologists for state and federal agencies documented bite marks, burrows and another valuable clue: rodent scat. 

Like law enforcement arriving at a crime scene, investigators collected samples and sent them to a lab. In animal droppings, soil tailings and damaged buckwheat roots were strands of DNA, traces of unique genetic material. If rodents were gnawing at Tiehm’s buckwheat, traces of the plant’s DNA should show up in samples, including the scat. Simply put, you are what you eat. 

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported the results of the DNA analysis in December, it supported that rodents — white-tailed antelope ground squirrels, to be specific — had caused the damage to the buckwheat. The study was another piece of evidence to figure out whodunit. 

But these conclusions did not linger in the realm of science for very long. Within hours, the new  report was injected with political weight. First, ioneer called a press conference with reporters. 

James Calaway, an executive for ioneer, reported that the DNA evidence “conclusively shows that the destruction of Tiehm’s buckwheat at Rhyolite Ridge discovered in mid-September was exclusively animal caused.” The report, Calaway said, “categorically refutes the irresponsible assertion by the Center for Biological Diversity that this was an intentional human attack.”

That same day, Fraga, working with the Center for Biological Diversity, questioned how much information could be taken from study. Did it really leave humans off the hook for the damage?

Fraga said she “would be cautious about interpreting the result of this study as definitive proof that rodents caused the extensive damage observed at the Tiehm’s buckwheat population.” She noted that the area had been significantly changed from when the damage was first discovered.

As with most things, the reality was not fully satisfying to those who wanted a neat, conclusive answer. The Nevada Independent talked to the scientist who actually authored the DNA study.

“What people should take away from this study is it is just one piece of evidence in this story,” said Jacqualine Grant, who conducted the DNA analysis and works as an associate professor of biology at the Southern Utah University in Cedar City. “It’s not the nail in the coffin, as it’s being portrayed on one side. And it’s not loosey goosey as it’s being portrayed on the other side.” 

Grant, whose background is in conservation biology, said the report “is strong evidence, but it’s not perfect evidence.” Yet she said that when the DNA analysis is taken in consideration of other evidence, such as roots with bite marks, the findings do “lend credence to this idea that somehow rodents were involved.” 

From a scientific perspective, the idea that rodents could be responsible for so much damage is unusual, and it would represent a significant scientific finding. 

"I couldn't find anything of this scale to a rare plant, and especially a buckwheat, that has been documented,” Fraga said. “There's nothing in scientific literature to suggest this would happen."

Fraga said she still believes human activity could have played a role, and she does not believe that the agencies fully investigated it, opting instead to focus on data that supported the rodent theory. 

“I just don’t think it’s a case-closed,” she said.

In the weeks after the damage was reported, the agency investigation was coalescing around a hypothesis of what motivated the rodent behavior. Perhaps swings in weather, even driven by human-caused climate warming, were causing unexpected species interactions.

“We have to assume that the buckwheat population has been there for thousands of years, if not longer, and so have the rodents,” Grant said. “What was different about this year that made the rodents go after the buckwheat in a way that they had not done in previous years?”

Root damage to Tiehm's buckwheat. (Nevada Division of Natural Heritage)

Staggering damage

There is one thing nearly everyone agrees on. The scale of the Tiehm’s buckwheat destruction was massive and unexpected. Tiehm’s buckwheat persists on eight rocky outcrops at Rhyolite Ridge, and each area represents a discrete subpopulation. These patches are natural but they look as though someone smashed and left several clay pots to dry in the middle of the desert. 

Analysis of the damage, conducted by the mining company and a state official, found that all Tiehm’s buckwheat had been killed in two subpopulations with extensive damage in the other areas. According to data collected by the mining company’s consultant, EM Strategies, only about 38 percent of the population was intact after the plants were damaged last summer.

On Oct. 7, Jim Morefield, a supervisory biologist with the Nevada Division of Natural Heritage, filed a report on the destruction, summarizing the damage and hypothesizing what caused it.

He wrote that to the extent survey data “can be extrapolated over the entire Tiehm’s buckwheat population of about 44,000 individuals, one could estimate that 16,000 plants were killed and another 11,000 damaged, leaving about 17,000 plants undamaged as of September 17.”

What stood out to everyone was the scope and rate of damage to Tiehm’s buckwheat. In one email that was shared with The Nevada Independent, Kris Kuyper, biology manager for ioneer’s consultant EM Strategies, wrote that “the amount of plants damaged or dead is staggering.” 

The email was obtained as part of a public records request the Center for Biological Diversity filed with state officials. The environmental group shared the records with several media outlets. 

The emails showed that the investigation was being closely watched, not only by the scientific community but also by political leaders. One email, from Cathy Erskine, senior policy advisor for the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, informed agency leadership that “the governor’s office is aware of and has taken interest in TB,” or Tiehm’s buckwheat. 

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s spokesperson, Meghin Delaney, said in an emailed statement last month that “the governor’s office receives regular updates on a range of activities from state agencies” and that “it has received updates over the previous months on the progress of this issue.”

Although Morefield, who surveyed the Tiehm’s buckwheat in 2010, had encountered herbivory in Great Basin plants before, he said he couldn’t say he’d “ever seen anything this extensive.”

Herbivory on this scale is fairly rare, and it might be surprising under normal conditions, he said. But climate conditions at the site have been less than normal. He hypothesized that significant climate swings in recent years might have affected rodent populations and changed their diets.

After a dry summer, biologists like Morefield have seen an uptick in herbivory to native species. 

Morefield is confident that rodents played a role in damaging the buckwheat. He said “the hypothesis best supported by the evidence to date is that one or more small mammal species caused damage to the Tiehm’s buckwheat populations over the period of a couple of months.” 

When Morefield views the totality of the evidence, it points to herbivory by small mammals. If humans were involved, it was minimal. But when asked, he could not rule out the possibility of human-caused activity. 

“I can’t, for sure, rule out that some human might have gone out on the site and vandalized some plants for nefarious reasons,” Morefield said. “I have seen no evidence to support that.”

White-tailed antelope ground squirrel (Renee Grayson/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Unexpected behavior

From a botanist’s perspective, the findings were even more jarring, said Grady, who studies  the buckwheat, a beloved species in the Western U.S. Grady knows a lot about the plant. He is, after all, the president of the Eriogonum Society, a group dedicated to buckwheat enthusiasts. 

“I study buckwheat, and normally there is not a lot of herbivory on buckwheat,” said Grady, who has supported the Center for Biological Diversity’s efforts to protect the Tiehm’s buckwheat.

In general, Grady said rodents tend to avoid going out of their way to consume buckwheat. 

Insect attacks on buckwheat are also rare. Buckwheats, Grady said, are presumed to produce a secondary chemical, as some plants do, that prevent them from attacks. Still, there is a lot that scientists do not understand about buckwheat in general and Tiehm’s buckwheat in particular. 

“They are an interesting group of plants,” he said. “They are charismatic. A lot of these things are rare. But they are not a model species. We don't know a lot about a lot of these species.”

“There are a lifetime of questions,” he added. 

For similar reasons, Fraga remains skeptical that rodents were solely responsible for the attack on the buckwheat. If they were, she said the findings should be published in a scientific journal. 

“It would be extraordinary,” she said.

From a wildlife perspective, the scale of the rodent destruction was also surprising, although not entirely implausible. Before the DNA analysis identified white-tailed antelope ground squirrels as a possible culprit, the Nevada Department of Wildlife conducted a survey of the plant damage. 

The report found evidence of foraging consistent with another species: pocket gophers. 

“This damage is consistent with pocket gopher foraging activities and patterns,” Tony Wasley, the department’s director, said in a cover letter for a report on the agency’s survey findings.

“However,” Wasley wrote in October, “the scale over which the disturbance occurred by far exceeds known home range size for an individual pocket gopher. If the disturbance occurred within a short time frame and was the sole result of pocket gopher foraging, it would require that multiple individual gophers simultaneously switched to Tiehm’s buckwheat as a preferred forage item over a relatively short period of time. The likelihood of a synchronized event of selective herbivory for Tiehm’s buckwheat by pocket gophers although plausible, remains unknown.”

The report also identified white-tailed antelope ground squirrels as a possible suspect. Michael West, a state wildlife biologist who compiled the report, said in an email that the rodent species has several life history characteristics that could lead it to cause significant damage to plants. 

These rodents have high reproductive potential, meaning that their populations can boom under certain circumstances. Their home ranges can extend as far as 15 acres, overlapping with one another. They are social, and they are aggressive in stocking up on food for winter, West said.

“Combined, these [characteristics] can lead to high levels of activity within a relatively small area and short period of time,” West wrote in an email last month, after the DNA study was released.

In that context, it might not be terribly surprising to see explosive population growth followed by a warm summer push rodents to eat plant parts they might not normally eat. Still, the situation is rare enough that many scientists have described it as anomalous and deserving more research. 

For one, many rodents would be needed to consume the plants. Morefield’s report estimates that if 27,000 buckwheat plants were damaged or killed, 900 individual rodents would have had to have consumed one plant per day for the course of a month. If the rodents were hungrier and ate two plants per day in the course of a month, then it would have taken 450 individual rodents. 

Of course, no one can say for sure that it happened — or didn’t happen.

“Many biologists wrote into the Fish and Wildlife Service with their opinions that this could not possibly have been caused by rodents because they’ve never seen it before,” said Grant, the DNA study author. “But just because we haven't seen it before doesn’t mean it cannot happen.”

Tiehm's buckwheat. (Sarah Kulpa/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Is it changing climate?

What many of the reports and surveys speculate is a scenario that unfolded with shifts in the climate. Morefield writes in his field report that temperatures in western Nevada last summer were about four degrees higher than the 30-year mean, and coupled with little precipitation. 

It mirrored what was seen across the Great Basin last year. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, 2020 marked the driest year on record for Nevada and Utah. 

What’s significant is that this period of heat and extreme drought came after a winter period in late 2018 and early 2019 that saw above average precipitation that fueled vegetation growth.

Morefield and others, including West, the state wildlife biologist, said they could envision a potential scenario where rodents proliferated after rain and snow soaked the region only to face a stressful 2020 that forced ground squirrels to forage for food that they normally wouldn’t touch.

“After three previous relatively wet years, including the extreme water year of 2019, summer of 2020 was exceptionally hot and dry in this region (setting historic records at regional weather recording sites), and this could have led to sudden and increasing resource scarcity for local rodent populations,” Morefield wrote in his field investigation, which was filed last October.  

West offered a similar potential timeline, but he said his speculation was observational.

“I do not possess and have not analyzed any quantitative data of vegetation, animal density or body size, or weather conditions related to the Tiehm’s buckwheat herbivory issue,” he wrote.

The hypothesis is bolstered by the fact that Morefield, Grant and other observers, including Las Vegas ecologist Jim Boone, have observed unusual herbivory across the Southwest this year. 

Grant can’t say for sure what happened, and she said it might be impossible to ever know without many more years of studying the Tiehm’s buckwheat and its interactions.

But Grant, who studies ecology in the Intermountain West, said what is known is that climate change will have an affect on plants across the region. The problem is it’s still challenging to forecast. 

“We don't know a lot about how rodents are going to respond,” Grant observed. “These biotic interactions are going to be affected by climate change, and it's somewhat difficult to predict.”

If the culprit is extreme heat and drought, driven by climate change, the blame falls back on humans. And the twist is that the extraction activity that threatens the Tiehm’s buckwheat — a lithium mine — is needed to address climate change and move to a decarbonized economy.

Ioneer, the company looking to develop the mine, has made this very point in materials it has submitted to the state about its proposed mitigation plan for the plant. In August, the company wrote that “working collaboratively to address difficult issues such as global climate change and species diversity is essential to balancing in ensuring Nevada’s economic and biologic integrity.”

Peter Raven, the president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and an author of a textbook on botany, is concerned about the interplay between both extinction and climate change. 

“All of this is taking place in a much older biological framework,” Raven said. 

To make it to what humans refer to as 2021, the Tiehm’s buckwheat and plants like it have had to evolve to the conditions of place, and they’ve survived in areas where their habitats remain. Both disruption to habitats and climate change can pose a threat to plants like the buckwheat, threatening species with extinction in a speed that is no match for the evolutionary process. 

“No matter what happens, there is no guarantee that the buckwheat will be able to survive in that place in 20 years where it is now,” Raven said. “The climate’s changing very rapidly.”

And still, Raven, who has signed onto letters supporting efforts to protect the plant under state and federal endangered species law, said that it is essential to try to keep ecosystems intact.

One of his colleagues, Raven said, often says “if you don’t save it now, you can’t save it later.


Tiehm's buckwheat removed from its natural habitat. (Courtesy of Patrick Donnelly)

At greater risk

Today there are cameras set up in the Tiehm’s buckwheat habitat. The plant is being closely monitored by everyone: regulatory agencies, scientists hired by the mining company and the environmental activists seeking to protect it under the federal Endangered Species Act. 

Will rodents return next spring, or was the herbivory a one-time occurrence?

Everyone wants to see what happens next. Morefield noted that some damaged buckwheat are beginning to resprout, signaling that at least some Tiehm’s buckwheat plants could recover from the incident. But there still remain many unanswered questions, including the definitive cause.

The problem with rare plants is that, by being rare, they tend to be isolated and understudied. What botanists are looking for is how the Tiehm’s buckwheat responds. Morefield and others are still asking whether the Tiehm’s buckwheat has faced similar rodent attacks in the past. 

But Morefield said it’s pretty clear the plant is at greater risk since the damage occurred.

“The smaller the population a rare species becomes, the more challenges it has to survive long-term,” he said, noting that the damage could affect reproductivity and genetic diversity.

Grant, the DNA author, said the damage signified the need to protect the plant. In addition to the evidence of the rodent attack, she pointed to the threats from mining and climate change.

“All of those things together say we really need to have a concerted effort to protect this plant,” she said. “And in the United States, our main mechanism for doing that is the Endangered Species Act.”

Calaway, an executive for the mining company, said at a press conference in December, that a listing under the Endangered Species Act was not the best course of action. He noted that the company has funded numerous studies and efforts to protect the plant voluntarily.

“What is a better approach is to have us working with responsible federal agencies committing contractually over many, many decades to that protection and preservation,” Calaway said. 

Since the destruction, the Center for Biological Diversity has filed an emergency petition to list the plant under the Endangered Species Act. The environmental group has asked a federal judge to weigh in on the issue and require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take action. The case is pending. 

On Monday, 101 scientists and 15 environmental groups plan to send a letter, organized by the center, to the incoming Biden administration, asking them “to take urgent and decisive action.”

Fraga said she has rarely worked with a plant in as precarious a situation. Before the damage, the Tiehm’s buckwheat faced a threat from the proposed mine. Today it is at even greater risk.

“In the beginning of this story in the journey of trying to protect it, it’s been significantly impacted,” she said. “Now the threshold or baseline has been shifted. It’s a tragedy.”

With push to build solar on public land, federal, state officials face a growing pressure — deciding where new projects should go

An array of solar panels at the Copper Mountain Solar 3 facility

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 tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com.

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Across the West, states are requiring utilities to move away from fossil fuels and increase their portfolios of renewables. The Biden administration is expected to encourage and incentivize the construction of large-scale renewable projects. Congress is already setting the stage for this.

In its spending bill in December, Congress directed the Department of Interior to work toward permitting at least 25 gigawatts of renewable projects on public land by 2025 (yes, this decade).

The two trends place Nevada in the front-and-center. About 85 percent of the state’s land is managed by the federal government in one form or another. And the driest state in the nation also happens to be one of the sunniest, making it a prime location for large-scale solar projects. 

Solar developers are responding. There are about 20 pending applications for solar projects in Nevada, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency that oversees most of the public land in the state. The agency is seeing increasing interest in solar — and not only near Las Vegas, where projects dot the highways. They are seeing interest across Nevada.

Yes, Nevada has lots of public land. But not all public land is open for solar development, and not all public land is appropriate for solar development. As part of their mission, federal land managers are required to balance energy development against its effect on other public interests: hiking trails, recreation, sensitive wildlife habitat, hunting and cultural resources.

Environmental groups (in addition to many Nevadans) want to see action on climate change. Yet they worry that poorly planned solar projects could undermine other pressing issues. The loss of wild places to development. The global push to protect 30 percent of land by 2030. The ongoing threats to imperiled species, including the Mojave desert tortoise and the Greater sage grouse. 

These groups, which range from The Nature Conservancy to the Wilderness Society, are calling on federal and state officials to put projects on less sensitive land or on brownfields (old mines, landfills, etc.) in Nevada. To do so will require coordination at all levels of government. 

Jaina Moan, who works on renewable siting for The Nature Conservancy in Nevada, said that the state has a role to play in this, even though most land is managed by federal agencies.

The state, Moan said, “can work with the Public Utilities Commission, [and] they can work more closely with the federal land agencies to ensure that the siting is appropriate for these projects."

Other states, such as Massachusetts, have passed laws to encourage renewable development on brownfields and have worked to assuage concerns developers might have about funding their projects (it’s cheaper to build on untouched land) or assuming liability for past industrial activity.

If it all sounds easy, identifying land for solar development is incredibly hard, and past planning efforts have generated mixed results. BLM land managers already have a system that attempts to direct solar development into low-impact areas, known as Solar Energy Zones.  

There are five Solar Energy Zones in Nevada, but projects have only ever been built in one of the zones. Instead, developers have opted to build in other areas. That’s often because of cost and access to transmission. Developers cite transmission as a big factor in where to locate a project.

What’s more, many projects rely on leases that were issued before the Solar Energy Zones were created in 2014, noted Dustin Mulvaney, an associate professor at UC Santa Cruz who studies how renewable energy siting intersects with other interests, particularly on public land.

“In some ways, the whole thing is irrelevant,” he said. “A great majority of the solar farms that are on public land were all exempt from the Western Solar Plan,” which created the zones.

Yet Mulvaney said there are still opportunities to balance conservation and development.

“There's a lot of people pushing people into false choices, pitting conservation and renewable energy,” he said, noting that other parts of the country have found ways to marry both concerns.

With a new round of interest in solar development, the question of planning is coming to the forefront again. Where should the solar go and how do you incentivize development in low-impact areas? Alex Daue, assistant director for energy and climate at The Wilderness Society, said the Solar Energy Zones still provide a good planning framework to move forward. 

He pointed to the Dry Lake Solar Zone, the one low-impact area in Nevada that has attracted development. By building there, he noted, developers have been able to speed up permitting. The focus now, he said, should be on identifying more areas that are closer to transmission.

“The federal government should be increasing the incentives for development in these areas,” he said, adding that agency officials should prioritize solar permitting in these designated areas. 

Daue said planning is especially important now with an expected uptick of solar projects.

“We know what the alternative is,” he said. “We have seen projects proposed and built in areas that are not low-impact. And without upfront planning, we'll probably see the same.”

Yet for other environmentalists, including Basin and Ranch Watch’s Kevin Emmerich, solar should only be placed on public land as a “last resort.” Instead, Emmerich is advocating for the Biden administration to emphasize developing solar projects on brownfields and rooftops.

“I would hope that they have learned from some of the impacts in the past and would like to work with us in siting these a little more properly,” Emmerich said in an interview this week.

A lot of what happens next will happen at the administrative level — at the discretion of federal land managers. In Southern Nevada, BLM land managers have created a formalized process for looking at solar projects when they are proposed outside of the Solar Energy Zones. 

The Southern Nevada District Office, in August, looked at 16 large-scale solar projects and ranked them. Kristen Cannon, a spokesperson for the office, said “applications that have high resource conflicts such as anticipated high density of sensitive cultural or historic resources, desert tortoise connectivity corridors, overlap with designated utility corridors and Special Recreation Management Areas are ranked lower than those that don’t have these conflicts.” 

Three projects were ranked as high priority, two were ranked as medium priority and 10 were considered pending, a designation that means more information is needed to move forward. 

On some projects, this process has already had an immediate effect. For instance, it means that the agency is prioritizing other projects over some that are closely-watched and have attracted local opposition. The Battle Born Solar Project is one such project, expected to span about 9,000 acres of the Mormon Mesa in the Moapa Valley. Last year, Gov. Steve Sisolak wrote a letter to the Trump administration seeking to fast-track permitting for the project. But as KNPR reported in December, local residents rallied against the project, which could affect recreation. 

For now, the BLM is prioritizing other solar projects. In a Dec. 9 email the agency sent to Lisa Childs, an organizer opposing the project, the agency put it like this “We have identified several other applications for solar energy development projects that have anticipated lower potential for resource conflicts that we have prioritized for review, so it is unknown when the Bureau of Land Management would be able to begin any work on the Battle Born project application.”

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

Western Shoshone activist, Carrie Dann, dies: Carrie Dann, whose decades-long fight for Western Shoshone lands in the Great Basin went to the U.S. Supreme Court and the United Nations, died this week. With her sister Mary, Carried Dann battled federal land managers over the right to graze on ancestral Western Shoshone land across northeastern Nevada. 

For decades, the Dann sisters refused to pay grazing fees to federal land managers, a dispute that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. Dann also fought back against the federal government’s permitting of gold mines and in Western Shoshone territory and raised concerns about the legacy of atomic testing. The Dann sisters’ activism, at times, put them at odds with other members from the Western Shoshone tribes, many of whom sought to settle outstanding claims with the federal government. The Associated Press published a piece about Dann’s passing. 

At Anaconda, mining is on the table: The Bureau of Land Management held its first meeting Tuesday night about whether to privatize public land at the former Anaconda Copper Mine, an effort that would leave the federal government with little oversight over a complex mine cleanup (the mine polluted local groundwater with uranium and sulfate). For more context, I wrote about the proposal last year. The meeting was largely uneventful, but one thing did stand out to me.

The agency is in the process of conducting an environmental assessment of the proposed land transfer. Watchdog groups want the review to consider how privatizing public land could affect future mining. But when questions about future mining at the site came up during the meeting, a consultant for the agency appeared to suggest that there weren’t proposals for re-mining at the Anaconda Copper Mine. This contradicts much of the reporting I’ve done. Here is what I know: 

In an interview in 2019, state regulators discussed re-mining and said that it could, in fact, be a big part of the method for remediating the mine. As I reported in 2019, a company has actively explored the site for mining. A recent document, filed with state regulators as part of the cleanup process, stated that “future development of the site is likely to support mining and may include construction of additional office space/or mineral processing facilities” (emphasis mine). That document was filed by the Atlantic Richfield Company, which wants to acquire the public land.

Climate change is changing the Colorado River: The Arizona Republic’s Ian James wrote a sobering piece on the ways that climate change is already affecting the Colorado River Basin and what’s at stake for the seven states and two countries that depend on the watershed. 

The big takeaway is that the future is going to require everyone to give a little. The difficult part is how to do that in an equitable manner. The quote that struck me came from the head of the Colorado River District: “All of us, regardless of our legal rights, regardless of what's on paper, we need to consider how we can use less water. And we need to take action immediately.”

“We all have a share in this.” In an interview with Los Angeles Times reporter Sammy Roth, the General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Jeff Kightlinger, echoed this sentiment about collaboration on the Colorado River, regardless of legal right. The Q&A is very interesting and worth reading. Kightlinger also discussed a recent investment by the Southern Nevada Water Authority in a Southern California wastewater recycling project.

Expect to hear more about the Salton Sea: Everything in the Colorado River is connected. And even conservation and cutbacks in some places can lead to environmental consequences. That’s what’s happening at the Salton Sea, a public health crisis continuing to create dust and air quality problems in California’s Imperial Valley, as The Desert Sun’s Mark Olalde explains in a collaboration with High Country News. A must-read about the struggle to fund a cleanup.

‘A brave new world when it comes to snow and wildfire:’ KUNC’s Luke Runyon reports on what we know — and what we don’t know — about how wildfires affect drinking water supplies. 

The Navajo Generating Station is demolished: A hugely symbolic moment for the West and the end of an era that leaves behind a complex legacy. The Arizona Republic’s Ryan Randazzo reports on the demolition of the Navajo Generating Station, once the largest coal-fired power plant in the West. It sent electrons to utilities across the Southwest, including to NV Energy. 

“The demolition of the largest coal burner in the West is a milestone for environmentalists who fought, and continue to fight, to shift the country to renewable energy,” Randazzo wrote. “But it was a somber moment for the hundreds of people who worked at the plant, some following multiple generations of family members before them, who benefited from the good-paying jobs.” 

Two degrees of warming: A new study this week found that “the amount of baked-in global warming, from carbon pollution already in the air, is enough to blow past international agreed upon goals to limit climate change,” Seth Borenstein reported for the Associated Press. Still, that amount of global warming — about 2.3 degree Celsius since pre-industrial times — could be delayed for centuries with rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the study found.

The delegation and the Green New Deal: Last week, my colleague Humberto Sanchez noted that no Nevada Democrats in the congressional delegation have endorsed the Green New Deal. In interviews, Democratic members of the delegation stressed that they wanted to see Congress take more action on climate change, despite stopping short of backing the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan championed by environmental activists and progressive members of Congress. 

Mountain towns in the time of COVID-19: Deeply reported piece by High Country News’ Nick Bowlin on the growing struggles and tensions facing small mountain towns during COVID-19, as wealthy part-time residents move away from cities and flock to second homes, putting a strain on resources. This story looks at an attempt by a group of second-homeowners, frustrated by COVID-19 rules in one Colorado county, to create a Super PAC and influence local politics. 

From Congress to the Legislature, six environmental issues to watch for in 2021

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

It’s Dec. 24, 2020. And it goes without saying that this was a tough year all around. Although I am looking forward to 2021, I bear in mind that the next few months — and longer — are likely to remain challenging, perhaps even more so. But heading into this holiday week, I feel grateful for a lot of things, including The Indy, the opportunity to write this newsletter each week and being able to highlight voices from across the state. I hope everyone is able to take some time over the break and celebrate a warm holiday with friends and family, even if it’s over Zoom. 

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 tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com.

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1. Moving from climate change planning to climate policy: Nevada now has a climate strategy sitting on Gov. Steve Sisolak’s desk. The thing to watch in 2021 is how the state starts to implement it. The climate strategy’s broad goal is to offer a pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050. So by definition, it has a multi-decade shelf-life. But that in no way excuses policymakers from acting now. The strategy acknowledges that, without new policy, Nevada is not on pace to meet the 2050 goal. The questions then become: What policies and how do they get prioritized? 

The climate plan differs from other reports in that it does not hand the Legislature pre-written bill drafts or prescribe to local governments exactly what policies they need to implement to put the state on track for reaching its goals. It makes a simpler point: Climate change is something that regulators and elected officials need to bake into all of their processes — something to consider every step of the way. Over the next year, it will be important to watch how policymakers, local and statewide, weigh climate change making decisions on a range of issues — in homebuilding, in transportation, in urban planning and in diversifying the state’s economy. How these policies address social justice and equity are crucial elements, and ones that I’ll be closely monitoring. 

2. A shift on public lands and environmental regulation: Over the weekend, President-elect Joe Biden introduced his climate team, comprising the administration’s appointees for several key positions related to energy and the environment. When compared to Trump’s appointees over the past few years, Biden’s nominations generally represent a stark study in contrasts. 

If personnel is policy, Biden’s appointees, on the whole, signal a significant shift away from a Trump administration that has rolled-back numerous environmental protections, often going against the best available science. The New York Times has a list of all the rollbacks. What happens moving forward? It depends a lot on the issue. In some cases, changing a regulatory rollback would require an exhaustive rulemaking process that can take years, especially if the Democrats do not have control of Congress. In November, InsideClimateNews looked at five potential focal points for a Biden administration looking to correct climate-related rollbacks. The piece notes that there are other factors at play, including increased public support for climate action, knowledge of the issue and potential buy-in from industries on certain regulations.

Although climate change rightfully gets a lot of the attention, it’s not all about climate change. The Trump administration rolled back numerous regulations regarding public lands, which are bountiful in Nevada (the U.S. Bureau of Land Management controls about 67 percent of all land in the state). Biden’s appointee for the Department of Interior, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, represents a historic pick for the position as the first Native American person to lead an agency that oversees tribal lands and is charged with protecting wildlife and permitting on public land.

3. Where will the renewables go? Even during a Trump administration that did not actively encourage renewable deployment over fossil fuel development, energy companies continued to pursue and build sprawling renewable facilities in the Mojave desert. As the state government and the Biden administration focus on expanding renewables, more and more pressure will be placed on locating projects, such as solar and geothermal facilities, on or near sensitive land. 

This is not a new issue. For more than a decade, the issue has often divided the environmental community, especially in the Mojave desert where improperly-located renewable projects can harm species, including the desert tortoise. Under the Obama administration, land managers created areas (Solar Energy Zones) to prioritize solar development on lands considered suitable for development. But solar developers have continued to build projects outside of those areas. 

At the same time, Nevada is poised to play a role in the materials supply chain for renewables and electric vehicles — technologies that are poised to be at the foundation of a decarbonized economy. As mining companies look to build new projects, they are already starting to face similar questions around location: What is the impact on water? What is the impact on wildlife?

There is no way around it: Meeting decarbonization goals is going to require a lot of land and a lot of public land. That’s why some conservation groups are advocating a planning process that analyzes land values and prioritizes the development of renewables on previously disturbed land. How this happens — or would happen — is something I’ll be watching out for next year.

4. A looming fight over natural gas: The Sisolak administration’s climate strategy is clear. For Nevada to meet its climate goals, the state must transition from natural gas in commercial and residential buildings. The climate plan includes the following language: “A potential first step in a phased transition from gas would be to allow consumers the choice between gas and electric on existing buildings but require all-electric in new construction. This would preclude establishing new pipelines, thus avoiding future stranded assets.” Cut to the 2021 session of the Legislature. 

Environmental groups are concerned that a permissive regulatory structure could lead to the construction of more natural gas infrastructure. In addition to expanding the state’s fossil fuel infrastructure, they argue, it could come at a high cost as climate goals require phasing out natural gas before new infrastructure could be paid off, creating what are known as stranded assets. At the same time, Southwest Gas, as I have reported, is looking at legislation around a pipeline replacement program. NV Energy, a natural gas provider in Northern Nevada, did not comment when I asked about its position on natural gas and the climate plan’s call to action.

What happens to natural gas in the 2021 session will be an interesting and important issue to watch, potentially predictive of how the state begins to address climate change. What will the governor do? And where will NV Energy land on the issue? Electrification is an opportunity for the utility. But at the same time, NV Energy provides natural gas to customers in the North.

5. Water law and water realities: I’ll keep this one short. What do discussions around Nevada water look like in a world where the Las Vegas pipeline is no longer at the center of attention?

Like most states in the Southwest, Nevada faces issues around managing groundwater (I wrote about a few of them earlier this year.). Across the state, each case is different. But the dynamics are often similar. There are more rights groundwater and streams on paper than there is water to go around without permanently undermining ecosystems, springs and the long-term use of water. The situation plays out across the West, and regulators have few easy management tools.

Although it will be interesting to watch what happens with water in the Legislature this session, lawmakers in Carson City are not the only decision-makers here. The courts play a major role, too. Several important cases are pending before the Nevada Supreme Court, including one that involves the state’s authority over domestic wells and whether the state, with the backing of a majority of local irrigators, can diverge from the traditional application of state water law. Just how influential are the courts in this? Here’s an indication: The state appears to be proposing a constitutional amendment that would make the Court of Appeals the first court to review state water rulings. District courts with locally elected judges are currently the first to hear the cases. 

6. The public land bills: Everyone is waiting for it. Environmental groups. Business groups in Southern Nevada. For years, Clark County has been working with the congressional delegation to craft proposed federal legislation that would allow for the ring around the Las Vegas Valley to expand onto public land. Clark County planners want to direct new growth south down the I-15 corridor toward Ivanpah and the California border. To offset the new growth, previous drafts of the legislation have looked to protect land as wilderness or as designated conservation areas. 

In a recent interview, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto confirmed that she is planning to introduce a version of the Clark County Lands Bill in Congress. Past versions of the legislation have been criticized for encouraging past growth patterns (growing out, not up) and have raised broader issues around sustainability, transportation and climate resiliency in a growing Las Vegas. 

Did I mention there are similar processes playing out in other counties across the state? 

Looking at you, Washoe County. 

A multi-year campaign convinced Congress to reject two military base expansions in Nevada — at least for now

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 tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com.

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Everything will stay the same, for now.

Last week, Congress approved the National Defense Authorization Act, considered a must-pass bill because it funds the military and lays out annual defense spending. In Nevada, the notable news was not what was included in the legislation. The news was what Congress left out.

After three years of heated public meetings, backroom lobbying, proposed compromises and bipartisan resolutions from the Legislature, Congress rejected two military proposals to expand testing and training ranges onto hundreds of thousands of acres of public land, including the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and land that is sacred to Native American communities. 

No one expected Congress to flatly reject the proposals. At the same time, nobody expects the rejection to be permanent. The military is expected to continue pushing for the expansions.

The conventional wisdom was that the Air Force and the Navy, lobbying members of Congress outside of Nevada, would get at least a partial expansion of their respective training ranges. The Air Force operates the Nevada Test and Training Range north of Las Vegas. The Navy operates the Fallon Naval Air Station in Northern Nevada. Each branch said it needed more land to train.

For years, they articulated the same specification: To simulate modern warfare, they required more land to practice dropping ordances from greater distances and at greater elevations.

The public process for the two expansions kicked off in 2016 and continued in the following years as each branch conducted an environmental review of what withdrawing hundreds of thousands of acres for military use would mean for Indigenous communities, wildlife, hunters, miners, recreationists and the integrity of the land. Over the next two years, the military held several public meetings.

What those meetings illustrated was clear. There was no free land. It was already valued by different groups for different reasons (and in many cases, competing reasons). In both cases, a broad group of tribal leaders, environmentalists, ranchers, hunters and miners voiced opposition to the proposed expansions, poised to close off access to federal public land. Both proposals further threatened the integrity of sacred Indigenous land, including burial sites.

And in the case of the Southern Nevada expansion, the Air Force proposal threatened to give the military control over the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the lower 48.

Despite widespread opposition (the Legislature even passed bipartisan resolutions that opposed the expansions), Nevada politicians recognized what appeared to be inevitable: Congress was probably going to give the military something. And if the military was going to get something, the state should get something in return. Gov. Brian Sandoval proposed one alternative to the Navy expansion in 2018. Over the course of the past year, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto floated two compromises — one for the Air Force in December 2019 and one for the Navy this October.

"We had to make the assumption that a big organization like the Navy and the Air Force were going to pull out all the stops,” said Jocelyn Torres, a senior field director for the Conservation Lands Foundation. “And we had to be prepared that they might try to do something or convince senators and House members from other states that they would pass their proposals.”

In an interview last week, Cortez Masto said that she had always supported the status-quo, or no expansion. But she started engaging with groups on a compromise after she “was hearing that the Air Force, as well as the Navy, were making their rounds amongst all of my colleagues in both the House and the Senate to try to do a larger package and expand their footprint.”

Cortez Masto said the compromise legislation could serve as a “good marker” if the military proposes expansions in the future. And it is likely the military will be back with new proposals. 

“It's a semi-victory because you know they’re going to keep pushing it,” said Greg Anderson Sr., Vice Chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, which would be affected by the Air Force plan.

Congress stated as much in language that accompanied the defense authorization. In an explanatory statement, Congress directed the military to work with tribes, state officials and the Nevada delegation to come up with a “mutually-agreed upon expansion” of the two bases. In the statement, Congress said is “essential for the Nation’s tactical aviation readiness” and training.

On Wednesday, Zip Upham, a spokesperson for the Fallon base, said the requirements that led the Navy to propose the expansion have not changed. He said “the training need is still there.”

In an email, he said the Navy continues “to work collaboratively with all stakeholders involved in the process, including tribal leadership, local and state officials, other federal partners, miners, ranchers, conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts and the citizens of Nevada.”

The defense authorization, if it is signed into law (another story for a different newsletter), would also create committees at both bases to facilitate dialogue between the military and local, state and tribal governments. That could set the stage for discussions about a future expansion.

Still, any expansion is likely to face resistance from a range of Nevadans who believe that the military is already using an appropriate amount of public land. The Air Force’s range already occupies about 2.9 million acres. The Navy’s range occupies about 234,000 acres. And most compromise proposals, as with the one proposed in October, have also faced pushback. 

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

A historic appointment: New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, an enrolled tribal member of the Laguna Pueblo, is President-elect Joe Biden’s top candidate to run the Department of Interior, Reuters reported on Tuesday. Haaland’s appointment would mark the first time an Indigenous person has led the agency, which oversees the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (making it a decisionmaker in how about 67 percent of Nevada’s land — and almost all of rural Nevada — is protected/developed). 

The West, Nevada being no exception, is riddled with instances where the federal government in general, and the Interior Department in particular, has failed to prioritize the interests of tribes or even consult with them on making decisions that affect their land, water and culture. With the potential for an Interior Secretary who knows the rights of tribal governments and the history of their communities, Native American communities are hoping that all could begin to change. 

For weeks, tribal leaders from across the country have advocated for Haaland, who has a track record of working across the aisle and has fought to prioritize the interests of Tribes during her time in Congress. In November, the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada sent a letter of support for nominating Haaland. This week, I spoke to several leaders about what her appointment would signify for Indian Country and how it could reshape the culture of Interior’s bureaucracy:

  • “For one, it would be her breaking the glass ceiling once again. She’s one of the first Indigenous women to be voted into Congress,” said Amber Torres, chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. “It’d be someone who understands our frustration, how Indian Country works and someone who is willing to go to bat and help Indian Country.” 
  • “I think you need someone who not only understands the importance [of Interior] but lives that importance. For someone like Deb Haaland, I think there's some excitement in the air from Indigenous populations across the country because we need representation across all spaces,” said Brian Melendez, chair of the Nevada Statewide Native American Caucus. “Having an Indigenous representative who can convey the importance of honoring tribal sovereignty and self-determination — that is what is missing and has been missing for a long time in American government.”
  • “We recognize that it's long overdue, and I'm happy to hear that she's a possibility for that position,” said Anthony Sampson, Sr., Chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. “I think she can connect us better with the federal government as a tribal liaison and look at what we can do and what our needs are."
  • “We have to have somebody — a spokesperson,” said Greg Anderson, Vice Chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes. “We’re left out of a lot of things.”

The uranium plume, transparency and oversight: The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is soliciting comments on a proposal to privatize about 2,000 acres of public land at the Anaconda Copper Mine, where legacy mining practices led to massive uranium contamination in an aquifer used for agriculture, homes and the Yerington Paiute Tribe. An effort to privatize the land would leave one less regulator overseeing the cleanup, led by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection. The agency has faced criticism for shelving an EPA-accepted model of the contamination and approving one that was far more favorable to the company responsible for the cleanup. A BLM review questioned whether the new model relied on “good science.” 

The important context: A land transfer raises concerns about the transparency and oversight of the cleanup — and whether the voices of Native American tribes will be heard in the process. In October, a spokesperson for Cortez Masto said the senator was engaging at the state level and “continues to have concerns with the proposal to convey contaminated federal land to a private entity without the appropriate transparency and oversight.” Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office has not responded to requests about his administration’s position on the land transfer or the decision to significantly cut the company’s responsibility for the pollution. More from my story in October. 

Drought conditions across Nevada and the Colorado River Basin: This year was marked by significant warm and dry conditions across the West. From a climate scientist with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies: “Compared to late 2019 and early 2020, when there was very little drought in the continental United States, this is quite an extreme single-year event that developed rapidly over the course of 2020. But if you look over longer time scales, I would argue this is really a continuation of a multi-decadal event that began around 2000. There have been some breaks, but the Southwest has been in more-or-less continuous drought conditions since then.” More on this (a sobering groundwater map) from an important NASA blog post.  

The future of Colorado River collaboration? The Southern Nevada Water Authority is making an initial investment of $6 million in a Southern California water recycling project with the hopes of eventually clearing up more water on the Colorado River as demand increases into the future. The deal was announced in a press release. This is the type of interstate collaboration that is definitely worth watching as the Colorado River is expected to face a drier future in a changing climate. I wrote more about the collaboration after it was discussed at a conference last year. 

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm was nominated to serve as energy secretary on Tuesday. There’s Yucca, of course. But the Department of Energy will likely play a key role in solar and geothermal development under a Biden administration, in addition to how research and development funding is spent for new technologies needed to achieve state climate goals.

‘We need water to survive:’ The Arizona Republic’s Ian James published an important series on climate change, water and the Hopi Tribe. The third installment of the series, focused on the tribe’s push for expanded access to water and clean drinking water, was published this week. It is worth spending time with these stories, which touch on issues that resonate across the West. 

Update: This story was corrected on Dec. 18, 2020 to indicate that the public process for commenting on the military's proposed expansions began in 2016. An original version of the headline said that there was a three-year campaign opposing the proposals.

Researchers say climate change is making the atmosphere thirstier — and increasing the danger of wildfire, drought

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 tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com.

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We talk about it a lot: Across the Southwest, human-caused warming is changing the way that water falls as snow or rain, creating uncertainty around the regional water supplies we rely on. 

Yet precipitation tells only one part of the story. Climate scientists expect another less-discussed variable to increase the risks of wildfires and droughts in Nevada and California over the coming decades. That variable is known as “evaporative demand,” and it’s effectively a measure of how thirsty the atmosphere is — the extent to which the atmosphere is trying to evaporate water. 

That all might sound technical, but evaporative demand has real-world consequences. In a new paper, Nevada and California researchers showed how greater atmospheric thirst, mainly driven by warming temperatures, could have major implications for drought and wildfire risk. 

“We saw this steady increase in evaporative demand through the end of the century,” said Dan McEvoy, a researcher with the Desert Research Institute and Western Regional Climate Center.

What McEvoy and the paper’s co-authors found was that greater seasonal evaporative demand — a roughly 13 to 18 percent increase by the end of the century — could dry out the landscape, creating conditions that are likely to increase the danger of intense fire and multiyear droughts. 

Recent fires have already been linked to extreme days of evaporative demand. Those extreme days are expected to increase, the paper found, and that could result in more wildfire danger.

McEvoy said the results showed “steadily increasing extreme days.” By the late century, from 2070 to 2099, the paper forecasted a four to ten-fold increase in the number of extreme days. 

The paper, published in Earth’s Future last month, helps to fill in a gap around predicting the effects of climate change across the state. Drought involves both precipitation trends and evaporative demand. But as the state’s newly released climate strategy explains, there remains a degree of uncertainty around how climate change will affect precipitation. That’s not the case when it comes to evaporative demand, which has risen in Nevada over the past four decades.

Julie Kalansky, a co-author of the paper and a researcher based out of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, said both variables must be weighed.

“When you think about drought just as the lack of precipitation — and without the evaporative demand — you are missing a relatively large piece of the puzzle,” Kalansky said in an interview.

The paper is predictive, but it can be valuable for planning today, researchers said. Fire, land and water managers could, for instance, work to include projections for future evaporative demand into planning about how to adapt to climate change in Nevada and in California.

Kalansky said a one takeaway from the paper was that “this drying of the landscape is really important to think about and consider in terms of planning for future adaptation and resiliency.”

As with other research into the effects of climate change, the paper primarily uses a model that assumes continued greenhouse gas emissions, what is sometimes referred to as a “worst-case scenario” for climate change. But cutting overall emissions could make the effects less extreme.

McEvoy noted that researchers ran the numbers through a lower-emissions scenario. While the increases in evaporative demand were less extreme, they were still significant. The conclusion, McEvoy said, is the atmosphere is getting increasingly thirsty, and policymakers should prepare.

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

No military expansions on public land — at least for now: The final language of the National Defense Authorization Act excludes controversial proposals to expand two military bases onto hundreds of thousands of acres of public land, including the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. In language released last week, Congress did not grant the military the requested land, which met opposition from Native communities, environmentalists, hunters, recreationists and the Nevada Legislature. But the fight over the proposed expansions might not end here. Congress directed the Navy and Air Force to work with tribes and state officials to find a “mutually-agreed upon” expansion. Jacob Fischler, reporting for The Nevada Current, has more details on it. 

Investigating Tiehm’s buckwheat destruction: “The September destruction of thousands of Tiehm’s buckwheat plants, an incredibly rare desert wildflower that lives only in a small portion of Esmeralda County, has been ‘strongly linked’ to ground squirrel damage,” writes John Sadler for the Las Vegas Sun. But conservationists are skeptical of how conclusive the finding is, given conflicting reports on the destruction and our knowledge of plant and mammal interactions. I’m working on a feature on the science around this issue — and its significance — for next week.

A green industrial park? The Reno Gazette Journal’s Jason Hidalgo writes about an effort to develop an industrial park in Churchill County with the goal of having a carbon-neutral footprint. “The initial phase involves building a 20-megawatt, zero-carbon footprint data center that will initially use a mix of renewables and natural gas,” according to the story. “By its second phase, TerraScale expects the cost of development to reach $1 billion as it expands to 100 megawatts.”

Appealing a solar project: At least two conservation groups — Basin and Range Watch and the Western Watersheds Project — are appealing a solar project near Pahrump, Dara Sokolova reports in the Pahrump Valley Times. They argue that the Yellow Pine Solar Project, approved by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, could harm Mojave yucca and the desert tortoise. 

The mining industry appears to be gearing up for a fight over taxes in the Legislature.

Lowering the forecast for Lake Mead: “Record and near-record low flows on the Upper Colorado River this summer and fall have dramatically and abruptly worsened the outlook for the entire river and the Central Arizona Project over the next two years.” Tony Davis reports for the Arizona Daily Star on the effects of a dry year that has left soils parched across the basin. 

"Look at this field of lichens!" Excellent story in the Arizona Republic by Amanda Morris on desert biocrust, threatened by human activities. “Biocrust looks like regular dirt to an untrained eye, but it is often described by researchers as the living skin of the desert. It helps reduce dust in the air, fertilize the soil and may have other important roles in the desert ecosystem.” 

Nevada climate strategy outlines framework to phase out natural gas, electrify transportation

An array of solar panels at the Copper Mountain Solar 3 facility

The goal is clear: To reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. 

The challenge is how to get there. 

A plan released this week by state agencies and delivered to Gov. Steve Sisolak on Tuesday outlined Nevada’s first “climate strategy” for zeroing out carbon emissions within the next three decades, what scientists say is an imperative for governments across the country to prevent the worst effects of a warming world — skyrocketing heat, extreme wildfires, limited water supplies. 

The strategy, a lengthy and comprehensive document, represents a significant turning point for a state government that has, for years, touted its record on encouraging renewable energy but has shied away from tackling climate change in a coordinated way. 

“It is about process,” said Kristen Averyt, who led the report’s drafting and is a former president of the Desert Research Institute. “It is about stitching climate action into the state.”

At its core, the report lays out a pathway for Nevada to achieve a cost-effective transition from natural gas and electrify the transportation sector, which is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Although the strategy does not dictate policy to the Legislature, local governments and state regulators, it analyzes and recommends several policies to pursue.

The strategy, Averyt stressed, is a “living document,” meant to set a foundation for future reports and analysis. And it was also meant to set expectations. Averyt acknowledged that the report is different from efforts that other states have taken. It intentionally leans into the challenges and the nuances, many specific to Nevada, that come with reducing emissions to net-zero by 2050.

“We have to get to zero emissions,” Averyt said. “Nothing is off the table.”

“We just have to be smart about how we do it,” she added.

For the 17 core policies analyzed in the report, the state established a framework that looked at each recommendation using four metrics: a policy’s potential for decreasing emissions, climate justice considerations, economic implications and the legal feasibility of implementing a policy.

Climate activists said the report is a significant step in the state’s efforts on climate action. It is important that there is a strategy, they said. But although the strategy considers climate justice — that marginalized communities are often disproportionately affected by climate impacts and the cost of climate action — activists said more work is needed to adequately center those issues. 

“Everything [the state does] around climate change — or even when we talk about affordable housing and transportation in general — should be looked at from an environmental justice lens,” said Cinthia Moore, a Las Vegas-based organizer with EcoMadres, which represents Latino parents and advocates for clean air. “And that should be the driver of these policies."

The report marks a nearly two-year effort to redirect the state’s focus toward addressing climate change, an effort that began in the 2019 Legislature. During the legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that set the state’s first economy-wide emission reduction goals to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

State officials estimate that, on its current path, Nevada would fall 4 percent short of the goal to decrease total greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2025, 19 percent short of cutting emissions 45 percent by 2030 and significantly short of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. 

The 2050 goal is in line with pledges made by other governments and corporations. Although the effort to reduce emissions will require investment, the strategy notes that meeting the emission goals could prevent between $172 and $786 million in economic damages associated with carbon pollution by 2030. Meeting the 2050 goal, the report finds, could prevent billions in damages.

In a statement prepared with the report’s release, Sisolak said climate action must play a role in building back a more “climate-friendly and equitable” economy after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sisolak, who ordered the report as part of his Nevada Climate Initiative, said it “serves as the critical framework necessary to elevate climate action and foster a healthy, vibrant, climate-resilient future for all Nevadans – especially our most disadvantaged community members who live in the areas experiencing the greatest climate-related health and economic impacts.”

Decarbonization of the electric sector

In reducing economy-wide emissions, decarbonizing the electric sector is the first step.

Emissions from generating electricity — burning coal and natural gas for power — accounted for roughly 32 percent of total economy-wide emissions in 2016, according to an analysis released by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection earlier this year.

That 32 percent share means the electric generation is now the second largest greenhouse gas contributor in Nevada — behind the transportation sector with a 35 percent share of emissions. 

But even though power plants contribute a smaller share of emissions than the transportation sector, transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy remains a prerequisite. As with most carbon reduction plans across the globe, Nevada’s strategy rests on electrification. The strategy aims to electrify transportation and make buildings more reliant on electric appliances, rather than gas ones.

That framework puts NV Energy front-and-center. It will require the utility to potentially hasten its transition from a majority fossil-fuel supply to a majority-renewable supply. At the same time, the utility has predicted that its demand will likely increase as other sectors require more electricity.  

In recent years, the state has made progress toward reducing power plant emissions, requiring the closure of coal plants in Southern Nevada and adding massive utility-scale solar projects to the grid. And in November, voters passed a ballot measure, amending the Nevada Constitution, to require utilities to have a supply portfolio of 50 percent renewables by 2030. The constitutional amendment adds more weight to a similar requirement that was unanimously passed by the Legislature last year. 

Still, the strategy recognizes that the electric sector needs to move faster. But how that reduction in emissions is achieved is left open-ended. David Bobzien, who directs the Governor’s Office of Energy and helped write the utility-related section of the report, said that was on purpose. 

“Even with our aggressive [renewable portfolio standard], there is water yet uncharted beyond that 50 percent standard,” Bobzien said. “How do we get to 100 percent? It's great that we have the goal there, but we do know that the last 50 percent is going to be complicated.”

On Thursday, NV Energy spokesperson Jennifer Schuricht said in an email that the strategy “provides a framework to examine all sources of carbon emissions and to create solutions that bring meaningful long-term environmental and economic benefits to all Nevadans at affordable prices. We look forward to working with our policymakers as we pursue these opportunities.”

A recent report, commissioned by the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), suggested that the state might need a renewable requirement closer to 80 percent by 2030 to remain on track with its emission goals. But the state’s report did not describe a specific policy, instead leaving open the possibility that policies other than a renewable standard could be used. 

NV Energy, which serves about 90 percent of Nevada’s electricity needs, recently filed a report with the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN) outlining its net-zero carbon goals. That report stresses the need to diversify its portfolio, build more transmission and manage demand.

The utility’s report suggests that the state might need to move away from a renewable standard in the future and toward other policies aimed more specifically at the grid’s carbon emissions.

In the PUCN filing, the utility said that “in the future, the state's decarbonizing efforts may benefit from a transition away from [renewable portfolio standard] targets in favor of decarbonizing policies to avoid conflict and increase impact across more sectors of the economy.”

NV Energy also warned against policies that entirely eliminate fossil fuel production or policies that limit carbon intensity from existing plants until there were renewable alternatives available.

A transition away from natural gas as the default

Despite transitioning away from coal-fired power plants and adding solar over the past decade, natural gas comprises the majority of NV Energy’s power supply. Simultaneously, natural gas is used in most homes and in commercial buildings for heating and cooking, adding to the state’s carbon footprint. 

A common theme in the report was the need for not only a substantive change but also a shift in thinking around natural gas — a transition away from the default policy of planning to use the fossil fuel well into the future.

The climate strategy specifically calls out a policy that allows utility regulators and NV Energy to use natural gas plants — rather than renewables — as placeholders in planning the utility's long-term supply.

Every three years, NV Energy is required to submit an exhaustive planning documented known as an Integrated Resource Plan. In that plan, natural gas plants that are often used as placeholders in forecasting long-term supply scenarios. The climate strategy suggests that eliminating the policy would improve the ability to plan for an electric grid that more closely reflects the state’s net-zero by 2050 goal.

“[The policy] basically says there are no goals or requirements to phase out fossil fuel reliance," said Cameron Dyer, a clean energy staff attorney for Western Resource Advocates.

“We need to get these natural gas placeholders out of being the vogue,” he added.

The climate strategy also looks at other ways to improve planning and reduce natural gas use, including changing the incentives that guide the utility when it comes to crafting its rates. 

But one of the most significant aspects of the state’s climate strategy is that, for the first time, it points policymakers beyond electricity, calling on them to phase out natural gas in buildings

The climate strategy says that “while Nevada’s electricity sector transitions from fossil fuels to zero-emissions renewables, the state must also transition from fossil-fuel combustion in homes and commercial buildings in the form of burning gas for cooking, hot water, and space heating.”

Bobzien said he did not expect this to happen overnight. 

"It's important to remember the time-scale contemplated by this framework,” he said. “It's a long-term transition to these technologies or newer homes, and it has to be sensitive to costs.” 

Environmental advocates — and the climate strategy itself — said a preliminary goal would be to ensure that consumers could choose between electric and natural gas.

The report said “a potential first step in a phased transition from gas would be to allow consumers the choice between gas and electric on existing buildings but require all-electric in new construction.

Echoing the climate strategy, Elspeth DiMarzio, an organizer with the Sierra Club, stressed that policymakers must look for ways to prevent the buildout of more natural gas pipelines that would need to be retired before the investments could be paid off.

“If you lock in new gas infrastructure now, we’ll be dealing with the ramifications for the next 30-plus years,” she said, noting that investments are typically paid off in rates. 

Questions about cost and land use

Southwest Gas, the state’s largest natural gas utility, said in a statement that the company was committed to working with the state on climate goals but was concerned about costs. 

“We believe any conversation about the sustainable energy future must consider the cost burden to Nevadans,” Scott Leedom, the utility’s director of public affairs, said in an email.

“Policy-driven electrification shifts the cost to consumers away from one of the lowest monthly utility bills they face, natural gas, to one of the highest, electricity. The voices of those who rely on natural gas to make financial ends meet in homes and businesses must be heard,” he said.

Bobzien, however, noted that electric appliances are steadily evolving to become more efficient and less costly. He pointed to the fact that costs can accelerate quickly with increased demand. 

“History has shown that these cost-curves can accelerate quickly — solar being the perfect example,” Bobzien said (the price of solar has dramatically decreased over the last decade).

Additionally, the climate strategy recommends several other policies to reduce the energy consumption of buildings: appliance efficiency standards, energy codes for net-zero buildings and the expansion of energy efficient and energy-savings contract programs. 

Nat Hodgson, CEO of the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association, said he supports the goals to reduce carbon emissions, and he was an early backer of energy efficient codes. But he cautioned an approach that could raise costs in a way that were passed down to homebuyers. 

“I'm also the guy you call about housing affordability,” he said. 

Hodgson said new homes are already far more energy-efficient than they were a decade ago. Most homes in Southern Nevada, he said, exceed standards for energy efficiency. 

But Hodgson said housing prices could increase if there were requirements for things like charging stations or specialized outlets to allow for electric appliances in the future. He said the more cost-effective strategy would be to focus funding on retrofitting existing homes. 

“Everything we can do, "he said. “But it comes at a cost. The number one issue is affordability.”

Environmental groups said climate change demands an upfront investment that, with the right mix of incentives and rulemaking, will ultimately benefit the consumer and keep costs down. If new homes are retrofitted for a future that demands electrified buildings, it will pay dividends when there is increased demand for electric appliances. 

“It's not in our head that we're going to flip a switch and do this all in a year and everyone is going to have a fully electric efficient building,” said Dylan Sullivan, a senior policy analyst with NRDC. “It's not going to happen like that. It doesn't make sense for it to happen like that."

He said electric alternatives to gas appliances, including heat pump water heaters, are competitively priced. Sullivan said it just requires a change in thinking about building. He also pushed back on the idea that preparing homes for electric appliances is more costly.

“It's only a sunk cost if you go in and install the gas appliance,” he said. 

And many businesses support climate action. Two days after the strategy was released, the Reno and Sparks Chamber of Commerce held a series panels on the climate strategy that brought in a range of perspectives, from the Nevada Mining Association to the Sierra Club. The chamber’s CEO, Ann Silver, said in an interview that she was supportive of the strategy, noting that there were a lot of things that individuals could do to help reduce emissions. 

“I don't think we should view this as something costly,” Silver said. “To me, it's comparable to wearing a mask. Maybe you are spending $3.99 on a mask, but that’s saving a death."

Silver said businesses want to show that they are acting on climate change, and it’s often demanded by customers. She noted that change does not happen overnight. But when there is a choice to be made — like replacing old light bulbs or replacing a fleet of vehicles — businesses and consumers should consider the climate implications of their actions. 

“I don't think we've done enough to normalize the activities that should occur,” she said.

Beyond economic costs, a massive deployment of renewables to offset natural gas could have significant environmental costs on the landscape and protected habitat for imperiled species, from the Mojave desert tortoise to the Greater sage grouse.

Environmentalists and wilderness advocates said that the climate crisis is a top priority, but they have urged the state to adopt a careful planning approach that avoids causing further environmental damage in pursuing more renewable energy infrastructure. 

Jaina Moan, external affairs director for The Nature Conservancy in Nevada, has advocated for siting solar, as much as possible, on previously developed land, like abandoned mines. 

The state’s strategy acknowledges issues around siting renewables, advocating a “smart-from-the-start” approach. Moan hopes to see a continued commitment from the state.

“A commitment and incentives for developing on lower-impact lands are needed,” she said.

Reducing emissions in transportation

As the state phases out natural gas, the strategy emphasizes the need to transition away from fossil fuels in the transportation sector, the leading source of the state's emissions.

To do so, the climate strategy included five policy proposals: the adoption of low- and zero-emissions vehicle standards, a clean truck program, low-carbon fuel standards, a “cash for clunkers” program and ending a loophole that allows car owners to evade emission checks. 

Electrifying the transportation sector was identified as one of the most complex issues facing the state’s decarbonization goal, one that requires buy-in from consumers and an array of state and local governmental agencies responsible for roads and infrastructure.

In addition to adopting electrification policies, the report said the state should also look for ways to manage transportation demand, decreasing the number of miles traveled in personal vehicles and increasing incentives for public transit and telecommuting.

Tackling how cars are used is crucial, the report said, with the number of miles traveled in cars — calculated as Vehicle Miles Traveled — increasing faster than the population.

“If this trend does not change,” the report says, “[emission] targets will be difficult to meet, even with aggressive changes to vehicle efficiency and fuel type, due to turnover rate of vehicles and other transportation-related [greenhouse gas] emissions, such as roadway building and maintenance.”

Despite the headwinds, the report also casts electrifying transportation as an opportunity. 

“Nevada is uniquely poised to capitalize on its unique assets by leveraging growth in the EV sector to become a hub for transportation electrification,” the report said.

The strategy notes that Nevada could play a role in the electric-vehicle supply chain, given the need for more lithium. The country’s only active lithium operation is based outside of Tonopah, and over the past five years, there has been an increase in lithium exploration.

Earlier this year, Nevada started a rulemaking process to adopt low and zero-emission vehicle standards through an initiative known as Clean Cars Nevada. Such standards, adopted in 14 states and modeled after California’s rules, would require car manufacturers to sell low-emission vehicles in Nevada and set credit targets for zero-emission vehicles. 

Andrew MacKay, executive director of the Nevada Franchised Auto Dealers Association and a former chairman of the Nevada Transportation Authority, said he was not surprised by the proposals and said there were some common-sense ideas. He cited closing the “classic car” loophole, which allows newer cars to avoid emission inspections, as one.

But he also said his group would ultimately not support the adoption of emission standards, instead preferring a national standard and letting markets guide electric-vehicle adoption.

“My opinion is this: Let the market work," MacKay said.

Despite disagreements with some of the policy recommendations, MacKay said he wanted to see the state address climate change and was impressed by the breadth of the strategy.

"This is going to result in the drafting of big pieces of legislation, regulatory efforts and the whole nine yards,” MacKay said, noting momentum in state government to take action.

What happens at the state level is only one aspect of climate action. The report comes as large corporations set net-zero goals, demanding a more fuel-efficient and eventually zero-carbon supply chain, and as car manufacturers seek to create new electric products to meet those goals. There is also another big player in the transportation sector: California. 

Paul Enos, who heads the Nevada Trucking Association, said that what California does can have a big effect in Nevada. He said many of his members already have trucks that meet California standards, so regulatory changes in Nevada could have a more minimal effect.

He said the climate strategy’s analysis of a new Clean Trucks Program provided a “honest assessment,” considering the economics and the impact on greenhouse gas emissions. 

“The reality is that so many of the trucks that are based here in Nevada, operating here in Nevada, they're already meeting the California standard,” Enos said in an interview.

Many of the big players in the trucking industry are already moving toward reducing their emissions as large corporate end-users look to meet their sustainability goals, Enos said. But any new rules could have a disparate impact on smaller trucking companies. And unlike in California, he said Nevada might not have the ability to offer incentives to smaller players in the industry. He said state regulators should weigh that with any rules they create.

"California can afford to get a lot of things wrong that we can’t afford to do in Nevada,” Enos said. “I worry about the small guys. I worry about the owner-operators.”

Starting a conversation on climate justice

For all of the policies analyzed, the state’s strategy considers climate justice issues as one of the four most primary metrics to guide the state’s action on reducing carbon emissions. 

Averyt, who led the report’s drafting as the head of the Nevada Climate Initiative, said this was a critical part of the report. In the coming months and years, Averyt expects that more information will be added to the strategy and the state will produce additional reports. 

She said climate justice will continue to be used as a metric to analyze policy. 

Across the nation and in Nevada, the effects of climate change often fall disproportionately on marginalized communities, amplifying inequality. More heat in urban areas, for instance, can lead to increased energy demand for cooling among residents who already spend a larger percentage of their income on electricity bills. In other cases, power plants and freeways with high emissions have historically been sited near low-income neighborhoods. 

At the same time, the action needed to address climate change can also disproportionately affect marginalized communities, often least responsible for creating the problem.

Climate justice activists in Nevada are concerned with both issues. They said the report was a starting point, but they hope to see more direct climate justice policies in the future. 

“My initial reaction was that it was a good start, but it was leaving out a lot of policies that I wanted to see discussed,” said Ainslee Archibald, a coordinator for the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition. “I felt it was kind of half of what we needed and half of what we didn’t.”

Early on, the strategy argues that climate action could be a way to correct environmental injustices that occurred in the past and create a more equitable economy moving forward.

“Through climate action, there is the opportunity to reconcile the social justice challenges Nevadans face,” the report said a few paragraphs into the Executive Summary section. 

For Archibald, who is also an organizer for the Sunrise Movement in Las Vegas, that would mean a transition from market-based systems to policies with fewer barriers to access. She said she would like to see more consideration placed on public transit and energy choice, the ability to produce rooftop solar and community solar in a way that is cost-effective. 

Moore, an organizer for EcoMadres and a member of the coalition, echoed these calls. 

“It's great that we are talking about electrification of vehicles and electric infrastructure but we need to think about ways to make these things accessible to everyone,” Moore said.

She said part of what the state should do, moving forward, is ensure more direct outreach to communities rather than conduct public outreach primarily on social media. Doing so, she said, would allow officials to more adequately address climate justice in policy making.

“There is so much work that still needs to be done,” Moore said.

Officials say camp cleanups needed to protect homeless and environment, but advocates call for broader solutions

On a February morning, after a cold night in downtown Reno, Randolph Pena sits in a wheelchair against a chain-linked fence, wearing a zipped-up hoodie. Behind him, there are rusty old train tracks. In front of him is a row of tents. He says one of them is his. 

When it's cold on nights like the last one, Pena says he'll "blanket up." 

"[We] go get more blankets," he says. "But it's too cold. It was cold last night."

Pena, 60, was one of more than 150 unsheltered residents living in a narrow strip of land between the back of the Greater Nevada Field and railroad tracks in downtown Reno. Shortly after Pena spoke with The Nevada Independent in February, Reno police officers cleared the area as part of a series of regular and controversial cleanups of encampments, telling KUNR that there were reports of people lighting fires in their tents to keep warm and bags containing human waste. 

Amid a global pandemic and an unforgiving job market that’s spurring housing insecurity, Nevada's decision makers are grappling with ways to balance concerns that homeless individuals are creating safety and sanitation problems, with the reality that there are not enough resources to protect unsheltered populations from the harsh elements of the environment.

Reno temporarily suspended homeless camp cleanups at the onset of the pandemic. But the city soon resumed cleanups, holding its first "clean and safe operation" on May 4 at Evans Park and conducting about 167 more cleanups into November, according to a presentation from the city on Nov. 18. That does not include cleanups conducted by the Nevada Department of Transportation.

Slide of Cleanup Activities from a presentation given to a joint meeting of the Sparks and Reno city councils and Washoe County commissioners on Nov. 18, 2020.

Citing environmental hazards posed by unsheltered populations living outdoors and Reno residents' complaints, city officials said the cleanups were necessary.

The cleanups, supervised by Reno’s “Clean and Safe Team,” collected more than 480 biohazard gallons and 2,699 cubic yards of waste since cleanups began in January. The city formed the Clean and Safe Team after receiving a notice of violation from Washoe County public health officials, according to Cynthia Esparza, a senior management analyst for the City of Reno.

Slide of Waste Collection from a presentation given to a joint meeting of the Sparks and Reno city councils and Washoe County commissioners on Nov. 18, 2020.

"At the core we're seeking to improve the health and safety of public spaces — that is the underlying mission of everything that we are doing," Esparza said.

Records from city council meetings show that before a cleanup takes place, a sign and other notifications should be posted at camps, providing residents with at least 24 hours notice to vacate and offering storage, resources and services. 

The Clean and Safe Team will then identify, tag and store property at the Community Assistance Center for up to 90 days. 

Though the minimum time frame is 24 hours notice, John McNamara, the operations chief for the Reno Fire Department, said that the city usually notifies camps a few days before a cleanup takes place, having Reno police and social service workers walk the area to offer assistance and connect homeless individuals with services.

Environmental hazards

In the Reno-Sparks area, about 85 percent of the public's water supply comes from the Truckee River. 

During a Community Homelessness Advisory Board (CHAB) meeting in November, representatives from One Truckee River, a group of public and private partners managing the Truckee River, said that stormwater sampling and analysis of 11 fixed sites on eight tributaries of the Truckee River showed elevated concentrations of contaminants. The group also found higher levels of E. coli in the river.

Though documentation noted that the source of E. coli could not be identified, authorities posited that lack of public restrooms and people living in encampments near the river contributed to the contamination.

Despite the contamination, the water treated by Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA) is safe to drink, according to Andy Gebhardt, the director of operations and water quality for TMWA. He said that two water treatment plants on the river process and treat the water. Workers have had to remove various objects such as colostomy bags, catheters and hypodermic needles as well, Gebhardt added.

"Everything that you put in the Truckee River, we have to take out," Gebhardt's slideshow read during a presentation to CHAB in November. "We can treat pretty much anything … but we shouldn't have to."

To reduce the waste going into the river, TMWA proposed placing bathrooms in the area for people to use. In August, TMWA, Reno, and other organizations installed the first of what will be nine to 18 public restrooms as part of the city's River Restroom Project. This type of public restroom, known as a "Portland Loo," debuted in Portland, Oregon and has since been set up in cities around the U.S. and Canada.

The river sweeps and cleanup programs, however, are controversial. Organizations advocating for unsheltered people emphasize that nothing prevents individuals from returning to the banks of a river after a cleanup takes place, especially when people have nowhere else to go. 

The blame for environmental and safety issues does not lie on people without resources, argues Aria Overli, a community organizer with progressive-leaning nonprofit Acting in Community Together in Organizing Northern Nevada (ACTIONN). She said the problem lies in a lack of resources such as accessible public restrooms, trash disposal options and mental health care and addiction services.

The question officials should be thinking about is the environmental effect of people living in houses compared to people using almost no resources, Overli said.

"It's very difficult to believe that unsheltered or houseless folks are using more environmental resources than I am, so I think that's a narrative that we need to change," Overli said. "I would argue that there are structural factors that cause environmental damage to be done in a way that gets scapegoated on unsheltered populations."

As the pandemic devastates the local economy and an influx of evictions looms on the horizon, advocates also question the ethical and legal implications of continuing encampment cleanups. The Ninth Circuit Court upheld a decision in Martin v. City of Boise that a municipality cannot arrest or punish people for sleeping on public property when no space is available in shelters or other indoor facilities. 

The stress on city shelter space and lack of ability to house the homeless population in the area has not halted cleanup efforts. A city spokesperson said that because there are still beds open at the shelter each night, the city is within its right to continue cleanups.

With a combined shelter capacity of about 797 people in Washoe County and an estimated 1,778 people experiencing homelessness in Washoe County in September, there is not enough space to safely house every unsheltered individual in the county. 

Local leaders recently announced an ambitious shelter project with wraparound care services. The shelter will not be completed until sometime in February, and fears remain about what will happen to people living outdoors as temperatures continue to drop.

A 'vicious cycle'

Before the pandemic, Susan Cameron, a social worker with Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada, visited homeless encampments, offering aid. She said many people feel safer outdoors.

"A lot of individuals have anxiety, PTSD, are dealing with past trauma or abuse or they've had bad experiences with the shelter. Some have reported theft or being assaulted," Cameron said. "A lot of individuals do actually have pets that they're not allowed to take, their significant others, girlfriends, boyfriends or they have friends and they've kind of built up a community sometimes too, where they just don't want to be separated." 

Cameron noticed that homeless encampment cleanup efforts had forced populations more toward the suburbs, spreading further away from the centralized services near the downtown area.

"It certainly makes it much more difficult for clients to come in to the resources here at Catholic Charities or other places downtown when they're dispersed," Cameron said. "So that makes it much more difficult for them to access services and probably less inclined to."

After the sweeps along the railroad tracks in February, Cameron said that many new camps sprung up further from Fourth Street and underneath highway overpasses.

Almost 10 months after the cleanup along the railroad tracks, encampments returned to the south side of the river, said McNamara. He described the cleanups and subsequent movements of encampments as a "vicious cycle.”

The haphazard setup of the encampments means that tents and other structures can easily catch fire, McNamara said. The highly flammable tents, plastics, trash, and other combustible materials in the encampments can also create toxic smoke and present dangers to both the surrounding landscape and the encampments' inhabitants, he added.

"I don't have a solution," McNamara said. "I know that the people who work for the city of Reno, they're doing their best to have positive outcomes for everybody, and it's really a no-win situation right now."

Homeless encampments lining the railroad tracks near downtown Reno on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (Andrea Laue/The Nevada Independent)

A man who uses the nickname “Forest” said he was living at the train tracks for two or three months when The Nevada Independent spoke with him in February. Before the tracks, he lived by the river, at the fisherman's pier, along Kietzke Lane and a few other places.

"Usually in less than a month, the officials see fit to roust us. And so once we're rousted, we have no choice but to pack it up and roll out and just hope and pray that we can find a place where we can stay a little bit longer to adjust ourselves," Forest said. 

He said many people he knows are working on trying to earn money, but housing is expensive and stable work can be challenging to find, especially for someone living in a tent.

"Contrary to popular belief, we're all not derelicts, not wanting to do anything with our lives. Some people … they work, they have jobs, they have incomes of some sort, and they're just trying to find a way off the streets," Forest said. "The shelters are too full — what can you do?"

Framing the cleanups

Officials worry about the threat unsheltered populations face when living outdoors and dangers responders face when answering calls in the community. As heat waves, wildfires, flooding and other natural disasters spurred by climate change increase, unsheltered individuals are most at risk of unexpected environmental changes

Since Jan. 1, the Reno Fire Department has responded to more than 290 nuisance fires, McNamara said, including many connected to fires that encampment residents are using to cook and stay warm. Reno municipal code states that individuals cannot have fires on city property, and the fire department has to enforce it, McNamara said.

In the winter, first responders see an uptick in emergency calls about people suffering from hypothermia, and the freezing temperatures during the winter in Reno present the fire department with difficult choices.

"Trying to tell people that they can't have those fires, no one wants to do that, whether it's fire or PD. No one wants to make their lives miserable," McNamara said. "Our goal is public safety."

Reno's winter winds can fan a fire quickly, and McNamara said he worries about unwatched fires that spread along the river, via bushes and within encampments formed from homemade structures that he described as “death traps.” Homeless people seeking shelter in abandoned buildings and accidentally starting fires also present dangers to firefighters responding to a blaze because those types of buildings are usually structurally unsound, McNamara added

Biohazards such as knee-deep trash, fecal matter, urine, syringes and other unsanitary conditions he has seen in the encampments necessitate cleanups, McNamara said.

Though the homemade tent shelters are not always up to fire code, Overli said that many people approach them with ingenuity, using duct tape and blankets to rig up tent-like structures to prevent themselves from freezing in the cold winter months. Continually upending camps means that people have to deconstruct the shelters they've built, exposing themselves to the elements, she said.

Overli said she wouldn't necessarily disagree with the argument that the cleanups are needed to help protect people. Still, she said part of the problem lies in how city officials and others are using the cleanups to hide homelessness from public view.

"I think that the problem is that cleanups are being framed as, 'we need to keep these spaces clean so that wealthier people can come into these spaces and feel safe and appreciate the river rather than, 'this is a human rights issue that we're allowing people to live in these situations because we're refusing to provide the resources,'" Overli said.

Facing a severe housing crisis

Officials in the region hope to reduce the need for homeless encampments and cleanups with a soon-to-be-built, 46,000-square-foot central shelter facility referred to as the Nevada Cares Campus, which will have space for men, couples, pets, a designated campground and health care services.

The campus is the product of a joint agreement between the cities of Reno and Sparks and Washoe County and is supported by about $16.8 million in congressional coronavirus relief funds. The new facility, approved by an almost unanimous vote on Nov. 18, came after city and county officials closed a temporary shelter at the Reno Events Center in favor of another shelter along the East Fourth Street corridor and searched for a more permanent structure that could better meet social distancing needs.

"Having a more centralized location, a bit more organized, the hope is that it will reduce the scattered nature of the camps and will, thereby reduce the need for so many cleanups," Reno City Councilwoman and CHAB Chairwoman Neoma Jardon told The Nevada Independent.

Though some individuals may prefer a larger shelter environment, others may want more privacy and their own space outdoors, Jardon said. The Nevada Cares Campus will feature a safe campground facility with security, trash cans and the ability for residents to access showers and pitch a tent without having to stay within the congregate shelter.

"We hear a lot about the benefits of [safe campgrounds] and why some choose that and why it's so needed," Jardon said. "We want to see what successes may come of it and what failures."

Overli applauded the Nevada Cares Campus as "an incredible move forward" in addressing unsheltered communities' needs but emphasized that relying on shelters is not a long-term solution.

"As COVID has further worsened an already severe housing crisis, and we are expecting to see record evictions in the new year, we must do more to address the severe shortage of affordable housing, lack of tenant protections, and lack of resources for addiction and mental health, as well as overdependence on police to solve social problems," Overli said.

Reporter Daniel Rothberg contributed to this story.

Indy Environment: State releases climate strategy to move toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

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 tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com.

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On Tuesday evening, the state released a comprehensive strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. It’s a big deal, marking a year-long effort among state agencies to develop a coordinated pathway for moving toward defined emission-reduction benchmarks.

Without additional policies, Nevada is not on track to meet its climate goals. On the current path, state officials estimate that Nevada would fall 4 percent short of its goal to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2025 and 19 percent short of cutting emissions 45 percent by 2030. The state’s long-term goal is to reduce economy-wide emissions to net-zero by 2050. 

The report, a product of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Nevada Climate Initiative, looks at 17 policies that would help move the state toward meeting its goals, which the Legislature established last year. 

I’m working on an in-depth piece about the climate strategy — and what comes next — for this weekend (please send me any thoughts you have about the report). For now, I’ve pulled out a few notable highlights from the report and what I’ve learned in my reporting so far:

It’s a strategy. The report is less of a prescriptive document of exacting recommendations and more of a description of the problems, their complexities and what needs to be done. The first page of the plan’s executive summary makes it clear that the report is intended to be a starting point — a strategy — for the state to achieve net-zero emissions within the next three decades.

Kristen Averyt, the state’s climate policy coordinator, said this was intentional. To propose very specific policies would require additional community engagement and data, she said. Instead, the report takes a broad view (an entire section devoted to analyzing “complex challenges”).

Averyt, who helped author the report, emphasized that it “takes a constellation of policies across different levels of governance to really do what needs to be done for deep decarbonization.”

The strategy identifies 17 policies and analyzes them in detail. Earlier this year, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection released a greenhouse gas inventory with a wide-ranging catalog of policies that could reduce emissions. Many of these policies appear scattered across the report, but the strategy specifically looks at 17 policies — a fusion of regulations, incentives and planning — focused mainly on three sectors: transportation, electricity and buildings. 

Averyt said she expects more policies to be analyzed in the future.

For years, Nevada has worked to develop a clean energy economy, exporting solar power to neighboring states and requiring NV Energy to expand its use of renewables. But the report’s policy recommendations are a recognition that action new policies are needed in other sectors as well. 

“It's important to now look more broadly across the entire economy when we are trying to figure out our pathways to a 2050 goal of net-zero emissions,” said David Bobzien, who directs the Governor’s Office of Energy and helped draft the electricity-related sections of the report.

A new focus on transportation and a transition away from natural gas. As a percentage of emissions, transportation is the state’s leading emitter (electric generation is a close second). The report analyzes a slate of policies that include low- and zero-emissions vehicle standards, a clean truck program, low-carbon fuel standards, a “cash for clunkers” program and ending emission inspection loopholes. The report’s policy section also recognizes the need to transition away from natural gas — and limit new investment in infrastructure — in both the electric sector and in buildings. “While Nevada’s electricity sector transitions from fossil fuels to zero-emissions renewables, the state must also transition from fossil-fuel combustion in homes and commercial buildings in the form of burning gas for cooking, hot water, and space heating,” the report said.

A climate justice lens: Notably, the report analyzed each policy using a framework with four metrics: the potential for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, climate justice considerations, economic implications and the legal feasibility of implementation. That climate justice — recognizing that climate impacts or costs should not disproportionately fall on marginalized communities — was a key metric used in the policy framework is significant, Averyt said, because that framework will inform what future actions the state pursues. The report also recognizes early on that “through climate action, there is the opportunity to reconcile the social justice challenges Nevadans face.” But climate justice advocates on Wednesday said while the report is a start, it still relied heavily on market-mechanisms and did not adequately center aspects of climate justice in its policies.

The scientific assessment. The report includes a scientific analysis, written by top regional climate researchers, of how climate change is affecting Nevada and what models forecast as future risks in the coming years. It might seem small, but having this information in one place is valuable and something that has not existed (at least to my knowledge) for Nevada before now.

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

Climate clues in Great Basin caves: Geochemical data from Great Basin caves paint a scary potential “worst-case scenario” for human-caused climate change. InsideClimateNews’ Judy Fahys looks at paleoclimate data, including research conducted at UNLV, that suggest nature is capable of hot, dry periods that could last thousands of years.

Whitebark pine gets protection: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week that it planned to propose the whitebark pine, which lives in mountain ranges across Nevada and the West, as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. Climate change is one of the threats that the tree faces. Kurtis Alexander from the San Francisco Chronicle has more

Three solar projects get PUC approval: The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada approved three large-scale solar projects last week, Andy Colthorpe reports for Energy Storage News. The projects, slated to come online in 2023, will help the utility meet its 1000 MW storage goal.

  • NV Energy filed a report with the utilities commission on zero-carbon emission goals. 

‘Our right to fire:’ The Arizona Republic looked at the battle that Northern California tribes face to control their lands when it comes to fire management. After a fire at Happy Camp, the capital of the Karuk Tribe, “community members also grieve for what they say is the failure of federal and state agencies to accept their deep knowledge and experience in stewarding these lands for more than 10,000 years.” This is a deeply reported, important story from Debra Utacia Krol.

The Mt. Charleston blue butterfly: Bloomberg Law’s Maya Earls reports: “Expansion of a ski area an hour from Las Vegas should be stopped because the Trump Administration failed to take a hard look at its impact on sensitive resources in Nevada, including on the endangered Mount Charleston blue butterfly, an environmental group says in a lawsuit filed in federal court.

Opposition to a solar project: Nevada Current’s Jeniffer Solis looks at opposition to a massive solar project in the Moapa Valley. The Battle Born Solar Project, which has backing from the Sisolak administration, could conflict with land that’s used for recreation and to draw tourists, residents worry. The project also could conflict with Mojave desert tortoise habitat.

Reid on his environmental legacy, compromise and a Biden climate agenda

When archivists began to sit down and dissect former Sen. Harry Reid’s papers from his time in Congress, they found that more than half of his work dealt, in some form, with the environment.

This was never part of a grand-plan. Reid did not set off on a mission to focus his attention on issues like water and public land — at least that’s what he says now. 

He simply did the work of being a U.S. senator in an arid state dealing with the natural resource pressures of rapid growth, a state where the federal government managed nearly 85 percent of the land and often treated it like a wasteland, a proving ground to test atomic bombs. 

“I believe that Nevada is a very sensitive state,” Reid said. “Climate change started affecting us some time ago, and I'm glad that I was vigilant and did what I could to protect it.”

A new documentary explores how Reid used power, as he rose through the ranks of Congress, to forge compromises on longstanding issues harming Native communities and degrading public land. On many issues, Reid built coalitions that worked toward correcting environmental wrongs. 

But some of his stances made him a polarizing figure. His decisions to designate wilderness land put him at odds with ranchers and turned him into an unpopular figure with some in rural Nevada. 

On other issues, from backing the mining industry to supporting the Las Vegas pipeline, Reid frustrated environmentalists who felt that many of his major compromises, with carve-outs for economic development and growth, had too many costs. They wanted Reid to go farther. 

All of this came against the backdrop of larger trends taking place. 

Reid was elected to Congress in 1982 during the final years of the Cold War. For decades, the federal government had used Nevada for atomic testing, sending plumes of radiation downwind. 

Jon Christensen, who produced the documentary with UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, said there was a perception in the federal government that the Nevada desert was a wasteland and not worthy of protection. Reid, he said, worked to change that image.

In particular, Christensen said Reid’s long-standing opposition to the Yucca Mountain waste repository “was an important part of this turn from this last generation — from seeing Nevada as a wasteland where you could put the stuff that nobody else wanted to a very vibrant, beautiful, diverse state in terms of ecosystems and geography and people and cultures.”

It was also a period of urbanization. When Reid was a freshman representative in Congress, Las Vegas had a population of about 505,000 residents. When Reid retired from the Senate in 2016, the state’s largest metro area had grown about five times larger — to roughly 2.4 million. That growth increased pressure on water and public land, creating tensions that still exist today.

Earlier this month, Reid and Christensen spoke to The Nevada Independent about his legacy on environmental issues, from settling disputes on the Truckee and Walker rivers to closing the Reid Gardner Generating Station and cleaning up the Anaconda Copper Mine. Reid also talked about the role of Congress in crafting legislation and climate action in a Biden administration.

Art of compromise

In the West, most issues involving public land inherently affect a range of competing interests. 

Federal public land is often managed for multiple uses: habitat conservation, grazing, hunting, mining, and recreation. But Congress can play a role in tilting the scales toward conservation or development. It can establish wilderness areas and place rules around how public land is used.

As a senator, Reid helped craft a number of pieces of legislation that protected millions of acres as wilderness. Those types of environmental wins increased the amount of conserved land in the state, but they came with negotiation and compromises that often allowed for development, whether it was mining in rural Nevada or homebuilding in Las Vegas, to proceed on public land.

“Legislation is the art of compromise,” Reid stressed. “Compromise is not a bad word. It’s a good word. It’s what legislation is all about. And I’ve been fortunate to understand that.”

Reid said he recognized early on that he needed to work with Republican colleagues like former Rep. Barbara Vucanovich and Sen. John Ensign to get what he wanted passed in Congress.

“I was able to give them some stuff that they wanted for the business community, and I got [legislation] for the public community,” Reid said. “So that’s how I got it done.”

This type of deal-making in Congress, Reid said, helped him address water conflicts in Northern Nevada. Reid touted his success in setting the stage to improve the water quality of two desert terminal lakes: Pyramid Lake and Walker Lake. As ranchers had diverted more and more water upstream, the lakes — sacred to Native communities — began to dissipate at an alarming rate. 

But coming to a settlement, in the case of Pyramid Lake, took years. And while Reid wanted to compromise, he took a stance: He wanted to see the restoration of the lake and its fisheries, as well as water for wetlands in the Fallon area that are critical for North American bird migration. 

“We kept water from the ranchers, and we put water into Pyramid Lake,” he said.

Reid said one of things he learned was how “terribly bad” Native communities had been treated — “decade after decade after decade, they couldn't even fish in their own lake part of the time.”

Compromise is sometimes discussed as finding a win-win. In reality, it often means that many interests walk away without something they want, a common theme in Reid’s approach. 

Even compromised solutions made Reid a polarizing figure in many places and among some of his supporters on environmental issues. In rural Nevada, Reid was disliked for establishing large tracts of wilderness and for redirecting water back to tribes who had seen their water taken.

“I think when I started doing my wilderness stuff, I went from being the most popular person in rural Nevada, because I was from rural Nevada, Searchlight, to being the most unpopular,” he said. “Because rural communities, Elko County, they all fought me on wilderness.”

At times, Reid also broke with environmentalists. He supported the General Mining Law of 1872, which exempts miners from paying royalties. He also backed the Las Vegas pipeline, a proposal to siphon groundwater from rural Eastern Nevada to Southern Nevada. The project, opposed in court by a coalition of tribes, ranchers and environmentalists, was shelved earlier this year. 

It was not just legislation

Although Reid touted his legislative record, his environmental legacy is characterized perhaps even more by using the power that he accumulated in less traditional ways. When Reid heard four coal plants could come online in Central Nevada, he called financial firms and pressured them to walk away, as The Nevada Independent reported in an interview with Reid last year.

Reid took a similar approach in pushing to decommission the Reid Gardner Generating Station, a coal plant near Las Vegas that was built next to the Moapa Band of Paiutes reservation. Over nearly half a century, tribal members bore the consequences of air pollution and toxic coal ash. 

“For 40 years, they were right under the crap that came out of the Reid Gardner coal-fired generating plant,” Reid said. “By the way, they burned two million tons of coal per year.”

As a senator, Reid pushed for the plant’s closure in 2012, and the next year, the Legislature passed a bill to transition NV Energy away from coal and toward renewable energy. Reid said that the tribe wanted to build a solar plant but the idea was not getting anywhere with the utility.

That’s when Reid said he decided to make a phone call: “So what I did was I called the mayor of L.A…., and I said, ‘Mayor, we’ve got 750 megawatts of electricity we can manufacture. We know you’re looking for renewable energy. Would you be interested in that?’” 

“We did that in a couple of different instances,” Reid said. 

In some cases, Reid placed pressure on the state or local governments dragging their feet on environmental issues. For more than a decade, Reid advocated for a federal-led cleanup of the polluted Anaconda Copper mine outside of Yerington. Historic mining at the Anaconda site left a local groundwater aquifer, used by the Yerington Paiute Tribe, tainted with uranium and sulfate.

“That was a big, big operation,” he said. “And they pulled out. And what they left there was a contaminated water source that was as bad as any putrified water in America. It was just the worst of the worst. But what I wanted was for it to be declared a Superfund site.”

Reid pushed for the EPA to oversee the cleanup and place the site on the Superfund list, which would have made the site eligible for federal funding. Lyon County pushed back, fearing a listing would bring stigma to an area dependent on agriculture. In 2018, a controversial deal made the state — not the EPA — the lead regulator for cleaning up the contaminated groundwater plume. 

Reid said he was “absolutely disappointed” by the deal.

“The state can’t do it,” Reid said, when asked why he did not support the 2018 deal. “They don’t have the tools to do it. No, they don’t have the expertise. They don’t have the money to do it."

Christensen said Reid’s career demonstrates the “different ways power can be used.” He used various levers of power to block Yucca Mountain, and he drew on his relationship with President Barack Obama to designate two national monuments at Gold Butte and at Basin and Range. 

Biden’s climate

Reid, known for pushing legislation for the renewable energy industry in Congress, has turned his attention to climate change in recent years. 

President-elect Joe Biden, who Reid worked with in the Senate, ran on an aggressive climate platform that included a large spending package. Such a plan would need Congress’ approval.

Reid, with experience serving in the minority and majority, said passing a comprehensive climate bill would be difficult, even if the Democrats regain control of the chamber (two Georgia runoff races will decide who controls the Senate). 

“First of all, even if we’re fortunate to pick up those two seats in Georgia, where we have a majority in the Senate, or at least a tie, that’s still going to be very hard,” Reid said on Nov. 9. “Because not all Democratic senators are environmentalists. Most of them are, but there’s a handful that aren’t. So it’s not going to be easy to get a climate bill that covers everything.”

Reid said that if states continue pushing climate-focused legislation, including renewable energy standards for utilities, that could send a positive signal to Congress that it needs to act. 

“There will be some things that can be done to help,” he said. “I think that with state’s all around the country passing renewable portfolio standards, it’s going to be incumbent upon Congress to help in any way they can to make that possible. And that is something we can do.”

In his first few months in office, Reid said that Biden will need to “use the presidential executive power” to address some of the environmental rollbacks that the Trump administration made.

“Trump has done some very bad things to the country,” Reid said. “He took us out of the Paris Climate Accord. He took us out of the World Health Organization.”