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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


CARSON CITY AND CONGRESS

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

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


WATER AND LAND

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

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

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

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


ENERGY AND CLIMATE

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

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

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

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

The state said it relied on the ‘best available science’ in a toxic mine report. Records show the science was negotiated with the company

In December 2019, an official with Houston-based oil giant BP reached out to two Nevada environmental regulators with a request: BP wanted a face-to-face conversation in Carson City.

The meeting, BP Remediation Manager Chuck Stilwell wrote, would include “several layers of management” from the company and the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP). 

“Several of us will travel to Carson City for the meeting,” he wrote.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss polluted groundwater at the Anaconda Copper Mine in Yerington, an agricultural town about 70 miles from Reno. Under federal environmental laws, BP subsidiary ARCO, a onetime mine-owner, was on the hook for cleaning up the tainted water.

BP’s request for a meeting the week of Jan. 20 made its way up the chain of command. 

Jeff Collins, who leads the NDEP bureau charged with the mine cleanup, forwarded the request to Greg Lovato, the agency’s administrator, and a deputy administrator. Collins wrote that he had asked them to “provide some days and times when they are available to meet that week.”

On Jan. 23, state officials met with representatives from the company, according to NDEP emails, including an ARCO presentation, obtained through the Nevada Public Records Act.

That same day, the state entered into several management agreements with ARCO, records indicate. One agreement was of particular significance. It marked the culmination of a process that had played out behind the scenes for two years: A far-reaching revision of EPA-approved science that benefited a corporation seeking to limit its liability for groundwater contamination.

The rollback of previous findings raise key questions about whether the state agency has the technical expertise to manage the cleanup. For decades, concerned residents and two tribes, along with former Sen. Harry Reid, pushed for greater federal oversight at the mine cleanup, arguing that the EPA had more technical resources to hold the company accountable.

“The state can’t do it,” Reid said, when asked about the cleanup last November. “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."

In 2016, the EPA had approved a report documenting extensive uranium pollution, originating at the mine, and traveling under fields, below homes and toward tribal land. In the following years, ARCO convinced state regulators to support an analysis showing less pollution tied to the mine. 

The agreement forged on Jan. 23, 2020 made it official. The EPA-approved report would be “superseded” by the company’s new analysis, according to an ARCO document and emails. 

An NDEP spokesperson declined to say who attended the meeting or confirm where it was held. The agency also declined multiple opportunities to provide information about the meeting.

The Nevada Independent asked for a copy of the Jan. 23, 2020 management agreements, but two officials with the agency, through NDEP Deputy Administrator Rick Perdomo, indicated that they were “not written agreements.” The Nevada Independent learned of the agreements because they were summarized in email correspondence.

Where the EPA-approved investigation had modeled tainted water extending miles away from the mine and contaminating more water than Nevada’s annual Colorado River allocation, the NDEP-approved analysis said that the mine caused less than half the pollution in the area. 

The revised report said that geologic processes and farming practices, not the former mine, contaminated much of the area, a theory pushed by ARCO and accepted by state regulators.

An agricultural operation adjacent to the Anaconda Copper Mine in Yerington on Sept. 11, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

“Best available science”

When NDEP released the revised report to the public in May 2020, Lovato, in a press release, said the report would help “chart a path forward based on the best available science.” 

But a review of more than 2,000 pages of NDEP records obtained by The Nevada Independent shows the “best available science” was the product of negotiation between NDEP and ARCO.

For nearly two years, environmental consultants, including, at times, experts who reviewed the company’s findings for the state, warned of potential biases in ARCO’s technical analysis and raised concerns about changes to its approach, according to a review of the public records.

In certain cases, when the state pushed back, ARCO resisted or ignored the state’s directions altogether. During the process, the Yerington Paiute Tribe, which uses the same aquifer as the former mine, appealed to the EPA for help. When a top state official found out about the tribe’s appeal, NDEP told an EPA counterpart that the “letter is an embellishment of the facts.”

NDEP, responsible for mine permitting, air quality, water quality and key elements of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s climate change strategy, did not reply to most of The Nevada Independent’s questions.

Lovato declined to provide more information “with respect to the questions about the process and progression in the determination of the extent of mine-related groundwater contamination.” He referred The Nevada Independent to past interviews, NDEP statements and public records.

“It is our hope that this next article will provide a complete, factual, and balanced review of lines of evidence related to determination of groundwater contamination, including describing the technical information on this technical matter in a thorough and accurate manner,” Lovato said, through a spokesperson, in an emailed statement on March 30.

NDEP redacted most of the technical analysis it used to evaluate the report, yet several records show NDEP employees and consultants expressed uncertainty about some of ARCO’s claims. 

If ARCO is not wholly responsible for the documented contamination, it is unclear who will be. Most residents in the area have capped their contaminated wells, have access to municipal water or have a filtration system in their homes. In 2013, ARCO settled a class-action lawsuit with local residents, agreeing to pay up to $19.5 million without acknowledging any wrongdoing. 

But questions remain about the effects of the contamination into the future and the risk to the environment. Polluted water, tied to the mine in the EPA-approved report, could be left without active treatment because the final NDEP-approved report reclassified it as not mine-related.

In a statement, Lovato said future use of the contaminated water, once linked to the mine, “may require treatment but there is no requirement for taxpayers to be responsible to remove that.”

A sign outside of the pit lake created by activities at the Anaconda Copper Mine near Yerington. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

“Potentially represent a significant departure”

Underneath the valleys and mountain ranges that stretch across Nevada, significant amounts of water flow in the Earth’s soil. Even in the most remote stretches of the state, this water is used to grow crops and extract minerals. Using water is the easy part. Modeling it is far more difficult.

For one, groundwater is mostly “blind.” You can’t see it all from the surface. And it is dispersed, up and down, in rock formations: a multi-dimensional, 1000-piece puzzle stitched in the ground.

Despite these obstacles, monitoring and chemical data can help experts put the puzzle together — to visualize what can’t be seen above ground. In the case of the Anaconda Copper Mine, the EPA directed ARCO to monitor hundreds of wells and conduct chemical studies to visualize the extent of the mine pollution, or plume. How far away from the mine had the tainted water gone? 

By 2016, ARCO and its contractors submitted a report, known as the Background Groundwater Quality Assessment, or BGQA. The BGQA was a key document summarizing years of data.

The BGQA underwent three revisions before the EPA approved it, and it left ARCO on the hook for a significant amount of pollution. ARCO’s own estimate suggested that, based on the BGQA, it could take 285 years to remove the quantity of water necessary to clean up the aquifer, even if 2,500 gallons were pumped each minute, according to a draft report the company filed in 2017.

The 2017 draft report estimated that uranium and other contaminants affected 385,327 acre-feet of water (an acre-foot is the amount of water required to fill one acre to a depth of one foot).  

The draft report, written by consultants for the company, stated that the EPA-approved BGQA was “sufficient to characterize the groundwater system, define the nature of mine-related groundwater contamination, perform a risk assessment, and conduct a feasibility study.” 

The company, in the 2017 draft report, said it was using the BGQA at the direction of the EPA to “conservatively establish the extent of mine-impacted groundwater” for finishing the final report.

Yet NDEP did not require the company to use the BGQA in the final report.

The final report, released by NDEP in May 2020, concluded that the mine was responsible for far less pollution. In the intervening three years, ARCO significantly revised its prior findings. 

NDEP allowed those revisions to move forward. In a February 2020 presentation, ARCO even  indicated that NDEP agreed that the “BGQA overstates the extent of [mine-impacted water].”

Revising the BGQA had its origins in 2018, when the Trump administration put NDEP in charge of the cleanup as part of then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s controversial effort to “streamline” Superfund, a program that disburses federal dollars to address the nation’s most toxic sites. 

After NDEP took over as regulator in 2018, ARCO reinterpreted the data and rewrote previous conclusions to argue that very little nearby contamination was linked to the mine. ARCO began to emphasize two hypotheses: The company said water use in farming was contributing to the spread of contaminants and some of the pollution was natural, tied to geothermal activity. 

NDEP has repeatedly claimed that the EPA left the door open for the revisions in the report. In an interview last summer, Lovato told The Nevada Independent that the BGQA represented “an outside estimate” of how far the mine-related contamination had traveled in the groundwater.

“And now we’ve refined that,” he said.

The BGQA, as NDEP and ARCO have argued, noted that some of the contaminants, including uranium, can be found in the area “as a result of groundwater contact with naturally-mineralized and/or hydrothermally-altered bedrock” associated with copper deposits or sediments.

But early into the revision process, EPA submitted several technical comments to the state, and its comments suggest that the EPA recognized ARCO’s changes as a shift in the approach. 

Statements about the pollution in a new ARCO document, the EPA said, “potentially represent a significant departure from the conclusions reached in the final version of the [BGQA].” The EPA further said the BGQA did not “provide data to support the inclusion of geothermal activity.” 

“The conclusions reached in the BGQA still appear to represent the best interpretation of the general limits of the plume of mine-impacted water,” the EPA wrote to the state in June 2018. 



“If other analyses or detailed studies have been performed,” the EPA said, “it is recommended that future documents provide such studies to support conclusions regarding reinterpretation of the limits of mine-impacted water or the attribution of sources within those limits.”

The EPA, no longer in charge of managing the cleanup, did not “perform an oversight review” or “take a position” on the final NDEP-approved changes, a spokesperson for the agency said.

Monitoring wells test for contaminants near the former Anaconda Copper Mine.
Monitoring wells test for contaminants near the former Anaconda Copper Mine. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

“Reduces their ultimate liability”

Before Lovato cast the final report as the “best available science” in May 2020, NDEP officials were well aware of the dynamic — that ARCO’s reinterpretation would reduce its overall liability.

In November 2019, Jeryl Gardner, a supervisor at NDEP’s Abandoned Mine Lands Branch, wrote in an email that the company’s conclusions in their geothermal analysis “reduces their ultimate liability and responsibility for any potential groundwater treatment (or even monitoring).”

The company first presented the geothermal analysis in October 2018. It attributed some of the contamination, once linked to the mine, to a naturally-occurring geothermal anomaly, a technical claim that was met with skepticism from within NDEP and also outside the agency, emails show.

After the company submitted the geothermal analysis, Gardner asked another NDEP employee,  Connor Newman, to conduct a high-level review. Newman, who specializes in geochemistry, sent comments back to Gardner in late November. NDEP redacted almost all of the comments.

In an interview, Newman said he came away thinking that “the evidence was not strong enough to positively identify that as the most likely scenario” for the documented pollution in the area.

“The primary conclusion that I reached was that the conceptual model that the geothermal memo put forward was possible but not necessarily the most plausible explanation,” he said.

A year later, on Nov. 23, 2019, Gardner reached out to Newman, who was no longer working for NDEP, to ask his advice on another report assessing the validity of the company’s geothermal analysis. This new report had been prepared by Terraphase, a consulting firm hired by NDEP. 

Again, NDEP redacted most of the report. Yet Gardner wrote that the “primary point” was that the geothermal hypothesis “is non-unique, and generalized, and cannot be proven conclusively.”

Gardner went on to write that “[ARCO] uses the [Geothermal Technical Memo] as a cornerstone [line of evidence] for proof that [mine-impacted water] never did, doesn’t and never will move further than just a few hundred feet north of the mine site. Obviously, for ARC, this reduces their ultimate liability and responsibility for any potential groundwater treatment (or even monitoring).”

“This sets up a particularly poignant battle with ARC soon (week after next),” Gardner wrote to Newman, asking him to share his thoughts on the Terraphase review. “I just want to make sure as we go into battle, that our arguments and conclusions are solidly, scientifically-based.”



Newman said he agreed with the “overall conclusion that the conceptual model is speculative.” 

“The lines of evidence they bring up certainly could explain the groundwater geochemistry, but they are not the most likely explanation,” Newman wrote, discussing the geothermal analysis. 

“Many conceptual models are theoretically possible,” he wrote, “but the best conceptual model is parsimonious in that it requires no large leaps of faith. This whole geothermal anomaly conceptual model requires some inventive reasoning to believe it is the most parsimonious explanation.”

Around the same time, a federal regulator, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), was also expressing wariness about the geothermal analysis and the validity of ARCO’s results.  

On Nov. 15, 2019, an environmental consultant for the BLM wrote in an email that a version of the geothermal analysis “seeks to shrink the mine impacted water by 90% from the previous EPA‐accepted [report] and appears that many of NDEP’s directions have not been included.”



Three days later, the BLM consultant raised concerns that “multi-variate modeling used by the Responsible Party to evaluate the impact of historical evaporation ponds on groundwater extent is insufficient and potentially biased to indicate less impact than what has actually occurred.” 

By early December, Terraphase, NDEP’s contractor, had prepared a presentation questioning the validity of the geothermal analysis. One of the slides, obtained as a public record, included a title that said ARCO’s analysis “lacks compelling evidence of a fossil geothermal system.” 

Still, in a Jan. 23, 2020 management agreement, NDEP and ARCO agreed that a “geothermal anomaly exists and influences water quality north of [the Anaconda Copper Mine Site], though extent of influence is uncertain,” records show. The anomaly was included in the final report. 

NDEP declined to comment on these documents or provide additional context.

A slide for a presentation prepared by NDEP consultant Terraphase in December 2019. GTM stands for Geothermal Technical Memo, an analysis performed by ARCO.

“Dramatic change in the interpretation”

From the start, the Yerington Paiute Tribe also expressed deep concern about the geothermal analysis and the consequences of significantly cutting the company’s liability for groundwater.

The mine-related groundwater pollution, as defined in the BGQA, stopped short of the tribe’s land, but the tribe has long worried about the effect of contamination on their water if the plume moves beneath its reservation. In the past, regulators had required ARCO to deliver bottled water to about 90 residences on tribal land north of the mine, where some wells are polluted.

On Nov. 28, 2018, two days after Newman submitted his comments on the draft geothermal analysis, Laurie Thom, then the tribe’s chairman, wrote a concerned letter to Lovato. The letter said the geothermal analysis was “technically incompatible with past documents” from ARCO.

For the tribe, the state’s response was unsatisfying. 

In late March of 2019, Gov. Steve Sisolak met with Thom and Amber Torres, the chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, which is involved in the cleanup. The day before the meeting, a copy of Sisolak’s calendar, obtained by The Nevada Independent, said he was briefed by Lovato and Brad Crowell, who leads the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Staff members who were present at the meeting between Sisolak, Thom and Torres recall “a concern being raised by tribal leaders over their ability to give feedback on the clean-up process in the past,” Meghin Delaney, a spokesperson for the governor, wrote in a recent email.

Frustrated with the state, the Yerington Paiute Tribe eventually appealed to federal officials for help. In April 2019, Laurie Thom wrote a letter to Mike Stoker, then the administrator of EPA Region 9, which oversees environmental regulations in Arizona, California and Nevada.

Thom described the geothermal analysis as marking a “dramatic change in the interpretation of groundwater conditions compared to the [BGQA].” She asked the EPA to step in and provide a review of the science and approach. The tribe said it had made little progress with the state.

Thom said she was concerned that the feedback NDEP provided to ARCO on major documents did not accurately reflect all of their concerns. In the letter, Thom also asserted that NDEP had not met to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the tribe and had blocked funding.

When NDEP found out about Thom’s letter, a top NDEP official, Jeff Collins, wrote an email to his EPA counterpart that “once again, they are misrepresenting our communication.” Collins, who leads NDEP’s Bureau of Corrective Actions, attached the letter that Thom had referenced. 

He said it “does not criticize, but clarifies and explains.” Collins wrote that NDEP does not send ARCO comments “that are provided as perspectives, that are unsubstantiated, unsupported and formed as opinions.” Assertions about the memorandum of understanding and NDEP blocking the tribe’s funding for technical support, he said, was “a terrible misrepresentation of the facts.”

“In light of the productive annual meeting we just had with you and your management, I suggest you make it clear to your management this letter is an embellishment of the facts,” Collins wrote.



When the EPA responded to the tribe, the federal agency noted that it was no longer the lead regulator on the site, but that it was following the issue and “generally shares” the concerns about the geothermal memo that NDEP, the BLM and the tribes expressed in comments.

Sisolak is continuing to monitor the state-led cleanup, Delaney said.

In a statement, she wrote that “the governor has faith in the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection’s ability to oversee the cleanup. Understanding that this is an important project for the community, the governor's office is keeping a close eye on how it’s handled.”

Bottled water in front of the Yerington Paiute Tribe's community center on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

“A really problematic response on many levels” 

As recently as August, consultants with the BLM questioned ARCO’s new conclusions. One expert said the final report NDEP approved “may not be supported by data or good science.”

Earlier this year, a spokesperson for the agency walked back that comment, writing in an email that the agency “fully supports NDEP with the remedial studies and finds no issues or neglect regarding the science supporting all remedial activities for [the groundwater cleanup].”

Still, records show that consultants with the federal agency regularly questioned the company’s approach and shared some of the concerns about the process for commenting on documents.

NDEP used an expedited process to review the company’s analysis. After the BLM and tribes reviewed the company’s reports, NDEP would collate their comments and send them to ARCO. 

In June of 2019, the BLM flagged issues “that indicated a revision of the expedited process should be strongly considered.” In several instances, NDEP did not relay the agency’s concerns to ARCO and the company’s responses did not satisfy its concerns, a draft BLM memo stated. 



When NDEP provided ARCO with directions, the company, in certain cases, declined to follow them, records show. In one instance, ARCO began using the term “mine-influenced” to describe areas where the mine was responsible for polluting the water. Under the EPA, ARCO had used a more definitive term — “mine-impacted” — to describe the extent of the mine-related pollution. 

NDEP told ARCO to use the stronger wording. ARCO responded that it had decided not to. In a document in November 2019, a BLM contractor described ARCO’s response as “problematic.”

“This is a really problematic response on many levels,” the contractor wrote. “To stakeholders and the general public it indicates that [ARCO] perceives [NDEP] Directions as suggestions. This type of response really undermines the perception of the actual process being followed.”

The final groundwater report, released by NDEP in May 2020, uses the term “mine-influenced.”

The Richard H. Bryan Building, which houses the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, in Carson City on Sept. 13, 2019. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

“Trying to convince us of their position”

Public records show throughout 2019, the year before NDEP approved what it would call the “best available science,” state regulators were wary of some of ARCO’s new assumptions.

Although NDEP declined to answer questions and redacted reports and email discussions about its technical analysis, records show the agency saw gaps in ARCO’s new technical approach. 

In June 2019, Gardner sent Lovato and Collins an invitation to a meeting about the groundwater issues. Lovato responded, saying he would be “particularly interested in hearing about important issues that [ARCO] has failed to respond to meaningfully and why we think they are important.”

On July 2, Gardner wrote that ARCO and NDEP “teams are continuing to work to resolve the gaps in our current positions.” Lovato responded that “on the surface this sounds good, but...” 

The rest of Lovato’s email was redacted. Gardner, in response, described ARCO’s approach. 

Gardner said “this has been their MO now for a while ‐ trying to convince us of their position, and we continue to make them understand the uncertainties involved in this hypothesis.”

ARCO’s synopsis of a conference call on July 8 stated that the company had been working with the state “to achieve alignment on the collective understanding of groundwater conditions.”

But, the synopsis noted, “recent discussions with NDEP suggested however that the alignment in groundwater perspectives may be more divergent than previously perceived by [ARCO].”

On Nov. 6, Brian Johnson, a liability business manager for BP’s remediation management division, emailed Collins and Lovato to say he would be in South Lake Tahoe for a meeting on Nov. 14th. He said “we’d like to stop by just to catch up with you guys on the overall project.” 

Johnson said the company wanted to share a video with drone footage showing construction progress for a different part of the cleanup and another video on “the geothermal anomaly.”

Collins replied that NDEP had a meeting with the tribes and the EPA that day. Johnson wrote back that the company officials were “staying in Reno, so we could meet for dinner or a drink.” 

Through an agency spokesperson, Samantha Thompson, Lovato said that they did not meet for dinner or a drink, though he and Collins met at the Cracker Box in Carson City around that time. 

Thompson’s email did not elaborate on what was discussed at the Cracker Box meeting, but it said that NDEP staff “have on occasion also eaten meals with leadership and representatives of EPA, BLM and the Yerington Paiute Tribe in the normal course of long work days and meetings.”

In replying to Johnson, Collins wrote that for an upcoming public meeting, he recommended referring “more generically to geothermal activities throughout history in this area,” as opposed to one area, and he wanted “to make sure our visuals and messaging are clear to the public.” 

As Collins and Johnson discussed how to present the geothermal anomaly at a public meeting, there were still concerns, including from the state’s own consultant, Terraphase, that there was a lack of evidence to fully support the company’s hypothesis of a geothermal system in the area.

On Dec. 5, 2019, Gardner sent Lovato, Perdomo and Collins three documents that Terraphase, the state’s technical consultant, had prepared after reviewing a draft of ARCO’s revised report. 

The first document, he wrote, “captures the essential comments and issues” in the draft report. 

The second document was a “hotly debated” presentation NDEP gave to ARCO. The third was an original presentation Terraphase prepared. Gardner said he “cut 15 slides and revised many [other] slides” before presenting it to ARCO “because I felt that it did not offer a path forward.” 

Still, Gardner wrote that the state was “aligned with the hypothesis and conclusions drawn.”

“[ARCO] did attempt to derail our full presentation, and partially succeeded by having extensive feedback/arguments back and forth on a few slides, so we ended up not showing them the Conceptual Site Model slides in the cut version of the presentation,” Gardner wrote. 

The presentation, obtained by The Nevada Independent, suggests that the state’s own technical experts still questioned some of ARCO’s claims. The title of one slide said ARCO’s geothermal analysis “lacks compelling evidence of a fossil geothermal system.” The title of another slide said the “approach does not definitively delineate the extent of the [mine-impacted water].” 

NDEP declined to comment on the presentation. A spokesperson for the agency also declined to indicate which slides NDEP cut before presenting the technical information to the company.

In an email on Dec. 6, Lovato provided direction on how to move forward, but it is redacted. 

NDEP declined to comment on the email, as with most of the public records. 

What is known is that two weeks later, on Dec. 19, ARCO requested the meeting on Jan. 23. As part of the Jan. 23, 2020 management agreements, summarized in the public records, the state agency agreed that a geothermal anomaly existed, “though extent of influence is uncertain.”

The records suggest that NDEP and ARCO appeared to resolve several issues at the Jan. 23 management meeting. In the end, NDEP would require the company to draw two models: a low-confidence model and a high-confidence model of the mine-related pollution in the area.

The high-confidence plume conformed to the company’s hypotheses; It showed contaminated water traveling only a few hundred feet from the mine. The low-confidence plume’s boundary extends farther but still stops far short of the boundary outline originally approved by the EPA.

The revisions marked a significant change in approach from the one ARCO had taken under EPA oversight. The final report would rely on multiple lines of evidence, but they were largely new or revised from lines of evidence used in the EPA-approved BGQA, the subject of multiple revisions and a years-long technical process that included vetting from the federal agency. 

Even with the Jan. 23, 2020 management agreements, NDEP still disagreed with ARCO on a number of technical issues and pushed ARCO for language acknowledging the uncertainties.

Monitoring wells beside a fallow field adjacent to the Anaconda Copper Mine in Yerington on Sept. 11, 2019.

“Unacceptable and unapprovable as is”

Months before NDEP would release ARCO’s rewritten report in May 2020, NDEP was readying its public relations for the report. Top agency officials began media planning in February 2020.

On Feb. 4, Lovato sent a calendar invite to NDEP and EPA officials. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss a press release. Ahead of the meeting, Thompson, the agency’s spokesperson, sent a communications schedule that detailed a timeline for releasing the revised final report.

The agency planned to send a draft press release to Sisolak’s office and the Yerington Paiute Tribe on Feb. 19, according to a draft timeline. On Feb. 28, NDEP was scheduled to receive a final report from ARCO. NDEP would “announce approval” of the report the following week.

Between March 9 and March 13, the agency would conduct an interview with the Mason Valley News. The next week, the story would go live and the state agency would issue a press release.

Things did not go according to plan.

ARCO submitted a final report on Feb. 28, but it would not be released to the public for more than two months. Gardner informed the company that the current version was “unacceptable and unapprovable as is.” NDEP wrote a letter to the company on March 18 noting “multiple deficiencies as well as material defects in some sections of the [final groundwater report].”

The state sent ARCO a list of required revisions. In its comments, the state required ARCO to acknowledge the uncertainties and limitations in the lines of evidence it used to make its case.

In an email with an EPA official in late March, Lovato said “it was disappointing they didn’t turn in an approvable document but we are prepared to go to the mat on this.” The email also included comments on a forwarded copy of The Nevada Independent’s environmental newsletter.

The company resubmitted the report, and the state was ready to approve it by the end of April, records show. The final report included the geothermal analysis as “Appendix N,” and it cut the company’s responsibility for the mine-related pollution outlined in the EPA-approved BGQA.

On April 30, Lovato emailed Scott Gilles, Sisolak’s senior advisor, to brief him on the final report and an updated press plan. Lovato wrote that the report, a departure from the EPA-approved BGQA, was the “culmination of over 15 years of field work and technical analysis.” 

With the approval of the final report, state officials also planned to announce that bottled water deliveries to about 110 residences, most of them on tribal land, would be phased out over the following six months. The bottled water program was initiated as a protective measure in 2004.

Yerington as seen from the Anaconda Copper Mine on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. Yerington is the county seat for Lyon County. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

“The Tribe has had sufficient awareness”

On May 8, the state received a request from the Yerington Paiute Tribe for 45 days to review the final report before it was released to the public. Collins forwarded the request to his counterpart at the EPA, writing that “this is a bit of a surprise and to be quite frank, a late hit.” 

Collins asked the EPA if it had ever granted the tribe a 45-day review period for a final report. Dante Rodriguez, a remedial project manager for EPA Region 9, replied that “in my experience on other sites, a partner agency is typically afforded review of final revisions if requested, although review of final revisions to a document are typically more in the order of 10 days (since only a very limited list of final comments are being addressed).”

Another EPA official seconded this, saying that his recollection was the EPA’s Anaconda site lead “tried to stay on the side of inclusiveness when considering requests for providing input but work with all parties to adhere to timeframes that were important for continued and productive progress at the site.” Because the agency no longer had oversight, he said that the EPA was “not close enough to the situation to make an objective recommendation” in the specific case. 



NDEP denied the tribe’s request. 

“NDEP believes the Tribe has had sufficient awareness and ample opportunity to discuss, review and comment during a number of well‐defined intervals leading up to and throughout the report review process as indicated below,” Collins wrote in an email reply on May 11.

Collins cited opportunities in 2019 for the tribe to provide feedback, though they were mainly on draft documents. He said he had informed the tribe’s chairman of the public relations rollout to release the report and the tribe would have other opportunities to comment later in the process.

That day, Lovato sent suggested talking points to Thompson and Collins. The email said “NDEP and its expert team approach this very conservatively,” referring to the extent of mine pollution. 

On May 14, NDEP issued its press release approving ARCO’s revised report. 

On the same day, Gardner emailed ARCO and its team of consultants to notify the company the state regulatory agency had approved the revised report — adding a celebratory message. 

“As you all know, this was no small accomplishment, and we persevered through diligent, far‐sighted, respectful, and collaborative efforts, to create a workable, approvable Report,” Gardner wrote to the company. “If we were not under strict travel restrictions and COVID precautions, I would want to have a celebratory toast with each and everyone of you.”

In reference to the email, Lovato, through a spokesperson, said that Gardner did not meet with any representative of BP or ARCO and “the expression of accomplishment at completing a difficult task that involved many people and many hours and days of work was simply that.”

Cameron Nazminia, an ARCO spokesperson, said in an email that the company “continues to work with NDEP to address environmental issues at this site in a protective and timely manner.”

The company, Nazminia said in April, “is pleased to note that progress is being made toward implementation of the remedy and future contract awards will be made. The company remains fully committed to working closely with NDEP and the community to complete this work.”

Despite the state pushing back on technical issues and framing the report as a positive step for the cleanup effort, site experts expressed continued concerns about the report through 2020.

Months after the final report was finalized, an expert environmental consultant hired by the BLM said that although NDEP raised several concerns with the company, the report was “still far too limited, which has serious implications on the risk assessment and potentially to the health of residents and farmers located” in the path of groundwater outside the “potentially biased” model.

Consultants for the Yerington Paiute Tribe have written in comments that the state-approved report “remains a remarkable and questionable deviation” from the EPA-approved BGQA.

The state has continued to defend the report.

Follow the Money: Breaking down $1.7 million in legislative campaign spending from PACs, political groups and politicians

The Legislature on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 during the third day of the 32nd Special Session in Carson City.

Of more than $10.6 million spent on Nevada legislative races in the 2020 cycle, no single group of donors, corporate or otherwise, spent more money than candidates, politicians and political PACs, which combined for more than $1.7 million spread across 61 of the state’s 63 lawmakers.  

That represents an uptick compared to 2018, when the same group of donors gave less than $1.4 million in the aggregate. 

Of these donors, dozens of candidate campaign committees — i.e. the formal fundraising accounts for each individual campaign — combined to be by far the largest single chunk with more than $931,000 contributed. They were followed by political groups and related PACs ($556,000), candidate-linked PACs ($117,500) and loans from candidates to their own campaigns ($113,366).

Broadly speaking, these contributions came in smaller chunks, and no single donor spent more than five figures in combined contributions. And, though the sum of these contributions has increased overall, many individual donors — especially issue-related or politically affiliated PACs — contributed less money than they did in 2018. 

In order to assess broad trends in campaign spending, The Nevada Independent categorized and analyzed more than 7,700 individual contributions of more than $200 made to sitting lawmakers in 2019 and 2020. 

These contributions capture nearly all campaign spending through that period, and more broadly show to whom the largest contributions flowed and how much they were worth overall. 

The data in this story show only part of the broader whole: 978 contributions from 271 unique donors fell under the umbrella of candidate or political PAC contributions. 

There are, however, two legislators not captured in these numbers, both appointed to their seats after the election and after a freeze on legislative contributions. They are Sen. Fabian Donate (D-Las Vegas), who replaced former Sen. Yvanna Cancela following her appointment to a post in the federal Department of Health and Human Services; and Assemblywoman Tracy Brown-May (D-Las Vegas), who replaced former Assemblyman Alexander Assefa after he resigned amid a criminal probe into the misuse of campaign funds and a residency issue. 

No single lawmaker raised nearly as much as Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), who brought in more than $215,000 from 45 contributors for her highly competitive re-election bid last year. 

Almost half of that money — an even $100,000 — came from just 10 donors giving Cannizzaro the maximum of $10,000 allowed by state campaign finance law. Four of those max-donors — Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas), Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Las Vegas) and Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) — were fellow legislative Democrats, while the rest came from former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and three more politician-related PACs. 

Those PACs include Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Sandstone PAC, Sen. Jacky Rosen’s Smart Solutions PAC and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s All for Our Country Leadership PAC.

Rounding out the list of top fundraisers are a number of other lawmakers who found themselves in extremely competitive — and consequently extremely expensive — elections. That includes Sen. Heidi Gansert (R-Reno), who raised $147,450; Assemblywoman Heidi Kasama, who raised $147,138, including roughly $119,000 in candidate loans; Sen. Carrie Buck, who raised $130,800; and Sen. Roberta Lange, who raised $113,650. 

All of those top fundraisers received a mix of PAC and campaign committee funds, though only one, Kasama, saw a massive fundraising boost from the addition of candidate loans made to her campaign. For the purposes of this analysis, those loans do not formally make Kasama a “contributor” like other major donors listed below, but still represent a massive influx of campaign cash relative to other campaign contributions. 

The near-$119,000 Kasama loaned her own campaign was so much that, if counted with other donors, it would make her the 10th largest legislative contributor in the entire election, sandwiched between the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association PAC ($119,000) and the public workers’ union AFSCME ($114,500). 

Unlike industry-related spending, contributions made from candidates, candidate PACs or political groups were largely diffuse, with no single donor giving more than five-figures (excluding Kasama’s candidate loans, which do not share the same fundraising role as other contributors listed here). 

Those top donors otherwise include a mix of politicians and issue-focused groups, including Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson with $68,000 contributed; the Humane Society-linked Humane Nevada PAC with $60,500; the Keystone Corporation, a Nevada-based conservative group, with $50,000; and the pro-Democratic Party, pro-abortion rights and pro-women candidates group EMILY’s List with $48,300. 

Below is a breakdown of spending from those top-donors. 

With generally little risk of an election loss in a deep blue district — Frierson has won each of his last three elections by between 16 and 20 percentage points — a non-trivial portion of the speaker’s sizable campaign warchest has, cycle by cycle, trickled down to a number of his fellow Democratic lawmakers. 

In 2020, that included contributions to 10 assembly colleagues and fellow legislative leader Cannizzaro, who received the maximum $10,000 from Frierson’s campaign. 

Other lawmakers receiving that maximum include incumbent Assemblywomen Michelle Gorelow (D-Las Vegas) and Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson), as well as legislative newcomer Elaine Marzola (D-Henderson), with the remaining recipients all receiving $5,000 or less.    

A pro-animal rights PAC linked to the Humane Society, Humane Nevada PAC was unique among top politically affiliated PACs in its contributions to members of both parties. The group gave $60,500 spread across 33 lawmakers last cycle, with $45,500 going to 21 Democrats, and the remaining $15,000 going to 12 Republicans.  

A new PAC to the 2020 cycle — it was created in 2018 but did not spend any money until last year — Humane Nevada’s contributions were also generally small, rarely exceeding a few thousand dollars. Among its recipients, no legislator received the maximum contribution amount and only two — Cannizzaro ($7,500) and Frierson ($5,000) received more than $3,500. 

A Nevada-based non-profit corporation organized in the 1990s around advocating for conservative policy, the Keystone Corporation has since served as a reliable donor for state Republicans. 

In 2020, that amounted to $50,000 spread across 20 Republican lawmakers, all but five members of the Legislature’s Republican caucus. And, as with a number of other major donors, Keystone’s biggest contributions flowed to some of the most competitive races. 

The two biggest recipients were Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Las Vegas) and Assemblyman Andy Matthews (R-Las Vegas), who each received the $10,000 maximum. Four Republicans — Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas), Assemblyman Richard McArthur (R-Las Vegas), Assemblywoman Jill Dickman (R-Sparks) and Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) — received $5,000, while the remaining 14 received $2,000 or less.     

A national group prioritizing the election of Democratic, pro-abortion women candidates, EMILY’s List is routinely among the top politically affiliated PAC donors in each Nevada election cycle. In 2020, those donations — split across both EMILY’s List and the EMILY’s List NF Fund PAC — amounted to $48,300 across just 10 legislators, all women and all Democrats. 

The four biggest recipients were Cohen ($11,500), Marzola ($10,000), Cannizzaro ($9,900) and Gorelow ($9,900), with the remaining six receiving just $1,500 or less. 

Still, that amount is roughly 37 percent less than EMILY’s list spent in Nevada in 2018, when its $77,000 total made it the spendiest single political group of the entire cycle.   

As part of our Follow the Money series The Nevada Independent will be publishing deep dives over the coming weeks into the industries that dominated legislative campaign spending in the 2020 campaign cycle. To see previous installments, follow the links below: 

Tim Lenard, Riley Snyder and Sean Golonka contributed to this report.

Open government advocates worry proposed legislation will conceal deliberations about environmental issues. That's only half of the story.

Trucks at mine site.

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

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

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


The federal government requires them. Standard confidentiality clauses.

The agreements are rarely discussed. But they are central to SB77, a proposed state Senate bill that could exempt certain pre-decisional meetings and records involving environmental issues from the Open Meeting Law and Public Records Act. Eureka County, a main proponent of the bill, has argued a change is needed to comply with both the federal agreements and state law.

April Corbin Girnus wrote an excellent piece about the issue for the Nevada Current: Right now, counties are often hampered by confidentiality rules. To discuss issues, they are stuck between following (or breaking) the federal confidentiality agreements and the state’s transparency laws.

But open government advocates have argued that the proposed bill would limit transparency in a process that has real-world consequences — whether mines are approved or power lines are erected. Ahead of a recent hearing, a coalition representing environmental groups, civil liberty advocates and news organizations, sent an opposition letter that’s worth reading (here’s a link). 

It is worth noting, too, that Eureka County’s natural resource manager, Jake Tibbitts, said the county opposes changes to the Public Records Act, and he is working to amend the drafted bill.

“If this were to move forward, we're totally open to stripping out all of that,” he said.

What struck me was why this bill was proposed in the first place. When the legislation was floated last fall, it was the first time I had heard of these federal confidentiality agreements. Given the federal government’s large role in permitting projects, they struck me as significant. 

Before I get into that, some incredibly technical (but important!) background:

Every year, dozens of local governments, tribes and state agencies participate in what is known as the NEPA process. NEPA stands for the National Environmental Policy Act. A lot can be said about it, but for now, the most important thing is that it requires federal agencies to analyze the environmental consequences of projects on federal land — and the outcome is significant. 

Nevada is about 85 percent federal land, so there are a lot of NEPA proceedings happening at any given time — and in many different corners of the state. When a federal agency starts the NEPA process, they invite local and state agencies to act as “cooperating agencies” during the crafting of an environmental analysis. It allows local and state agencies to convey opinions in an otherwise federal process. But there’s a downside: This is where confidentiality comes in.

These cooperating agencies — Churchill County or the Nevada Department of Transportation, for instance — must sign agreements with federal land managers, like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). But the agreements, a BLM spokesperson said, include standard language about confidentiality to prevent the “release of predecisional information or working documents.”

That puts a jurisdiction like Eureka County, an entity governed by three county commissioners, in a tough position. The county, at the center of the state’s gold mining activity, wants to have a say in the process for analyzing environmental impacts. To participate, they must agree to keep information confidential. At the same time, the Open Meeting Law requires that elected officials deliberate in public. But if they deliberate in public, they risk breaking the confidentiality clause. 

In 2009, the BLM chastised the county for doing just that: The Eureka Sentinel disclosed a report that showed pumping associated with a controversial molybdenum mine would have big effects on water. The disclosure suggested that the county broke its confidentiality agreement.

To avoid the issue, Tibbitts or one county commissioner typically represents the views of the county in the NEPA process. But state law limits their discussions with other elected officials. 

“It's been a whole struggle for me the whole time I've been here,” Tibbitts said.

This is especially a problem in rural counties that have small staffs or lack departments devoted to natural resources issues. Instead, a single county commissioner might take the lead in representing a county’s interests without being able to deliberate with their colleagues. 

But is Open Meeting Law the best venue by which to address the issue? That’s another question.

Open government advocates and environmentalists say no. They argue that a federal fix to the confidentiality language, stemming from the “deliberative process exemption,” might be needed. 

“The answer isn’t less transparency,” said Patrick Donnelly, the state director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The answer is more transparency. Let’s not make things worse.”

Donnelly sees SB77, as written, fitting into efforts to weaken state law around open government. 

He is also watching AB39, an Assembly bill that would exempt agencies from disclosing their deliberations prior to making a decision. Such a move would make it harder for the public to understand the interagency process, and in some cases the science, informing decisions.

“It would eliminate transparency,” he said. “Most public records requests I've ever done, which have resulted in important finds for our conservation campaigns, would have been exempted.”


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

CLIMATE CHANGE 

The Clark County Commission meeting. Yes, I’m aware that everyone tuned into the Clark County meeting on Tuesday for a different item: To watch the commissioners vote to change the name of the Las Vegas airport, currently dedicated to former Sen. Pat McCarran, a virulent and well-documented bigot. Now, with the FAA’s approval, it will be named for one former Sen. Harry Mason Reid. But all that to say, there was another big item on Tuesday’s commission agenda:

  • The Clark County Commission gave its unanimous approval to a climate action plan (here’s a link to the plan). It’s a major step for the state’s largest local government. With the majority of Nevada’s population, Clark County could play a key role in planning for more extreme heat and drought. “The impacts of climate change are very real and they are upon us,” commission Chairman Marilyn Kirkpatrick said Tuesday. “As a county set in the Mojave Desert, we know what’s at stake with our water and energy supply and intensifying heat island impacts. This plan recognizes those unique challenges.”

“First-hand experience:” Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson cited “Nevada’s diverse population and first-hand experience in issues relating to climate change, public lands, immigration and health care” as reasons why we have “a unique voice that deserves to be heard first” in nominating presidential candidates. Why we aren’t already first? I don’t know. POLITICO’s Tyler Pager and David Siders have more on that.

Natural gas in the Legislature: Gov. Steve Sisolak’s climate strategy recognized the need to transition away from natural gas to meet a goal of reducing total greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. As I’ve written about before, this issue is coming to Carson City. Earlier this month, Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) wrote an opinion piece for The Nevada Independent about why she is proposing legislation that would require gas utilities to undergo a more rigorous regulatory process when building new infrastructure. The bill would also require that state utility regulators study natural gas in the context of the state’s climate goals. Nevada’s largest gas utility, Southwest Gas, responded to the op-ed on Nevada Newsmakers last week. 

The natural gas PR-person Nextdoor: Mother Jones climate reporter Rebecca Leber digs into the tactics that the fossil fuel industry is using to influence customers to believe that natural gas stoves are preferable to electric stoves. The story includes an example from California, where an employee for a PR firm logged onto Nextdoor to stir up opposition to an electrification effort. Spoiler: There are Instagram influencers too. The reporting provides context for how the natural gas industry is doubling down on past efforts to sell gas stoves amid efforts to reduce fossil fuel use to combat climate change and a growing recognition of the health problems caused by indoor air pollution.

Texas, the electric grid, and climate change: The L.A Times’ Sammy Roth writes that “for all the differences between the events in Texas and California’s more limited rolling blackouts last year, there’s a common lesson: Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more severe as the climate crisis worsens. And the U.S. power grid is not prepared to handle the hotter heat storms, more frigid cold snaps and stronger hurricanes of a changing planet.”

WATER AND LAND

Shout it from the rooftop: You can’t build a new city without water. When I heard Gov. Steve Sisolak tout Blockchains LLC in his State of the State — with the words “smart city” — I could not help but ask about the water. We started digging, and what we found was that Blockchains, a big donor to politicians (and The Nevada Independent), wants to pipe water from rural Nevada. It scooped up water rights in northern Washoe County for more than $30 million and has also looked elsewhere, including in Humboldt County. The big takeaway here: Development of any sort, though especially a new city, is a question of natural resources as much as anything else. 

Rancher sues BLM over lithium mine: A Northern Nevada rancher is suing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over the Trump administration’s approval of the Thacker Pass lithium mine north of Winnemucca. The lawsuit alleges that the land agency’s approval, in the final days of the administration, violated environmental laws, the Sierra Nevada Ally’s Scott King writes.

Judge rules against lifting mining moratorium: “A federal judge on Thursday overturned a Trump administration action that allowed mining and other development on 10 million acres (4 million hectares) in parts of six western states that are considered important for the survival of a struggling bird species,” Matthew Brown reported for the Associated Press last week. A District Court judge ordered the Bureau of Land Management to reconsider the Trump administration’s decision, which did not fully consider how it would affect the imperiled Greater sage grouse.

The commission to study water law: A few weeks ago, we reported that Supreme Court Chief Justice James Hardesty planned to empanel a commission to study how water law is viewed in the judicial system and examine whether to create specialty water courts. An order requesting the creation of such a commission is now online, and a public hearing is scheduled for March 3.

Reno attorneys fined in Swan Lake flooding lawsuit: A Washoe County District Court judge fined City of Reno attorneys “$1,500 for failing to admit to facts in the Swan Lake flood case filed by Lemmon Valley residents,” Bob Conrad reported for This is Reno. “The sanction is on top of awarding more than $750,000 in damages to plaintiffs in the case. The award does not include attorney fees, which could double the amount owed to plaintiffs and attorneys.”

Contact tracing in wastewater: “Findings from wastewater testing suggest the U.K. variant of the coronavirus is circulating in Southern Nevada, according to one UNLV researcher, but the prevalence of the more contagious variant is unclear,” the Review-Journal’s Blake Apgar writes.

Some ranch sales are just out of this world.

OUTDOOR RECREATION

Boost in outdoor activities: The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) saw a jump in hunting and fishing license sales during the pandemic — and 2021 is expected to be better, Sudhiti Naskar reports for This is Reno. Our reporter Tabitha Mueller broke down the numbers in our legislative newsletter (you should sign up to receive it). “If there is a silver lining, it's in people's turning to nature for mental health, or physical health," NDOW Director Tony Wasley said in January.

Where to see dark skies: The Reno Gazette Journal has a few suggestions. 

Update: This story was corrected at 9:09 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 18 to indicate that NEPA stands for the National Environmental Policy Act, not the Nevada Environmental Policy Act, as an earlier draft stated.

Changing the name of McCarran International Airport will take months

It will take months for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to implement the recently approved name change of McCarran International Airport to Harry Reid International Airport.

“We must complete some administrative tasks before we officially recognize any name change,” said Ian Gregor, spokesman for the FAA’s Western Pacific Region, which has authority over Nevada’s airports. 

“These include processing the name change to ensure proper tracking of federal grant-agreement obligations, as well as revising the Airport Master Record and air traffic control maps to reflect the name change,” Gregor continued.

The tasks generally “take a matter of months” to complete, Gregor said.

The FAA doesn’t regulate airport names but could raise a concern if there were any operational issues.

The first step is for the Clark County Department of Aviation to notify the FAA in writing of the county’s action. That includes providing the FAA with minutes of the Clark County Board of Commissioners’ meeting Tuesday when they voted to change the airport name. 

Joe Rajchel, a spokesman for the county’s aviation authority, said there was no timeframe for when the authority would send its formal letter notifying the FAA. Still, he noted that “we are working on that letter in anticipation of when those minutes become available.”

Clark County Director of Aviation Rosemary Vassiliadis also laid out some of the steps the FAA will take once it is informed of the change. 

“FAA does perform analysis to determine the impacts to their system and the documents, so they would look at the air traffic control maps, they’ll look at the airport certification manual, the airport layout plan and the airport security plan, the grant documents,” Vassiliadis told the commission before the vote.

“That's why this takes some time to really scale down to see everything that would need to be changed,” Vassiliadis added. 

Vassiliadis also said that the county would need to change its documents to include the new name; for example, bond portfolio documents will require the new name. She added that the county would also need to work with airlines and concessionaires to make any pertinent changes.   

Seth Lehman, an airports analyst with Fitch Ratings, which monitors some of Clark County’s debt, said it’s not unusual for airport authorities to use airports to honor prominent citizens. 

One recent example is when officials in Louisville, Kentucky in 2019 changed the name of the city’s airport to Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport from Louisville International Airport.

The Louisville airport authority voted to change the name in January and unveiled a new sign in June, making the change official. 

The name change at McCarran shouldn’t affect revenues at the airport one way or the other, Lehman said.

“We don't look at it as something that has a material impact revenue-wise to an airport because it's not like where you rename sports stadiums or arenas, with a corporate sponsor that paid possibly tens of millions of dollars to have their name on their billboards and all the marketing materials," Lehman said. “Here, it's just more of an honorary approach.”

Lehman doesn't think that the politics involved in naming airports loom large in travelers' minds and that the airport is uniquely situated to serve Las Vegas.

“Anybody who wants to go into Las Vegas will use that airport, whether it's regionally or for long-haul travelers coming to the city,” Lehman said.

Clark County Commissioners approve renaming McCarran airport after Sen. Harry Reid, federal approval needed next

The Clark County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a name change from McCarran International Airport to Harry Reid International Airport. 

“I will be proud to cast my vote today to support the airport being renamed as a tribute to the work [Sen. Harry Reid] has done for Nevada, regardless of party, and a reminder that we must continue to fight the good fight for our community every day,” said Commissioner Justin Jones. 

Reid expressed gratitude following the unanimous vote.

"It is with humility that I express my appreciation for the recognition today," said the former senator. "I would like to express my deep gratitude to Commissioner Segerblom, the entire Clark County Commission, and the many others who have played a part in this renaming."

During the meeting, public comments were filled with support and opposition for the name change. While many favored renaming the property after Reid, noting his accomplishments and ties to Nevada, some outright rejected a change, and some proposed different name possibilities, including Las Vegas International Airport.

One person in opposition made the argument that changing the airport’s name to a powerful Democrat leader would further fuel the partisan divide present across the U.S., which he said carries economic implications.

“I'm not here to express an opinion on what's right,” said Edward Facey during the public comment period. “Rather, I want to reinforce the point that involving brands with politically polarized political issues and personalities has economic impact. And most of those impacts are negative.” 

But for others, the name change is a statement in support of Nevada’s diversity. 

“In Las Vegas, we often tear down our history,” said Astrid Silva, Dream Big Nevada executive director and immigrant’s rights advocate. “Let’s build it up, build up people like me, who didn’t know that they mattered. Naming Harry Reid International Airport would show all our young Nevadans that no matter if you come from the desert, you can soar.” 

The board will submit a request to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval of the name change, although the LAS letter code used by the administration to identify the property would remain the same. 

If approved, rebranding the airport would cost an estimated $2 million. However, Commissioner Tick Segerblom explained that funds will be raised privately to cover those costs. 

“I do think that no one should have to suffer from this economically,” Segerblom said. “We do have contributions lined up, and we will figure out a way to to collect those and then make sure it’s covered.” 

Along with the support from the all-Democrat commission, the decision to change the namesake of the airport, from the controversial and influential Sen. Pat McCarran to former Senate Majority Leader Reid, has been supported by other prominent Democrats throughout the state, including Gov. Steve Sisolak, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Attorney General Aaron Ford.

“Senator Harry Reid has never forgotten who he is or where he came from,” Sisolak said in a statement. “He has spent his life and his career lifting up Nevada to what it has become today. He has helped to shape Las Vegas into a world-class tourism destination in a state that celebrates its diversity.”

The name change also received support from prominent Republicans, including Miriam Adelson and Sands Chairman and CEO Robert Goldstein, as well as from university presidents, including UNR President and former Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.

“Among his list of exceptional accomplishments, Senator Reid’s work on behalf of the airport has helped Nevada become a great global destination,” Sandoval and UNLV President Keith Whitfield wrote in a letter. “We support honoring Senator Reid’s decades of service for the great State of Nevada by renaming the airport in the community and state that he has helped build and prosper.”

The push to remove McCarran as the namesake of the airport has been around for several years. In 2017, Segerblom’s effort to strip McCarran’s name from the airport through legislation died in committee.

The airport’s original namesake, McCarran, who served in the U.S. senate from 1933 until his death in 1954, has been defended by some as a champion of labor rights. However, his critics have scrutinized him for having a documented legacy of racism, anti-semitism and xenophobia that included restrictive immigration policies that limited immigration for Jewish refugees after the holocaust.

“Senator Patrick McCarran’s history of supporting racist and anti-Semitic policies does not align with what Las Vegas represents,” Jason Gray, an MGM Resorts representative, said. “And frankly his name should not be the first one that visitors to our region see.  Las Vegas’ main airport should be named after a champion of values important to Nevada – a champion of Nevada – Senator Harry Reid.”

This story was updated on 2/16/2021 at 3:07 p.m. to include a statement from Sen. Harry Reid.

Assembly leader files bill to transition Nevada to a primary, become first presidential nominating state

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson has introduced legislation that would not only transition Nevada away from a caucus to a primary for the 2024 presidential cycle, but also leapfrog New Hampshire and Iowa to become the first nominating state in the country.

The bill, AB126, was introduced on Monday in the Assembly, and officially kickstarts the effort by state Democrats to move Nevada up the nominating process ahead of the next presidential election cycle — a move still subject to approval by Democratic National Committee but could mark a major shift in how the country decides presidential nominees.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Frierson said he hasn’t yet contacted election officials in other early states but said that he planned to have those conversations in the near future and that Nevada has a “convincing case” of why it should be first.

“Nevada has been a better barometer of where the country is going,” he said. “And I think with the diversity that we have here in Nevada, it gives candidates a better opportunity to make their case before a really diverse population.”

Moving Nevada to the top of the presidential nomination list would end decades of political tradition, but the idea of changing the nominating order of states has gained increased traction amid well-documented debacles during the Iowa caucus, as well as a growing consensus that the first two states on the primary calendar — Iowa and New Hampshire — don’t reflect the full diversity of the country.

It’s why Nevada Democrats, led by former U.S. Sen Harry Reid (who secured the state’s move to the third early state spot in 2008) have planned a push to move Nevada to the top of the nominating calendar — a move that requires both changes in law and sign-off from both major political parties.

Even though New Hampshire has enacted laws requiring that their nominating contests be automatically pushed up should any state try to jump the line, Frierson said he planned to have conversations with leaders in other states and “all of our partners” on how best for the nominating process to proceed.

“Other states have laws that dictate where they belong in the process,” he said. “And I think as times change, we as a party need to adapt as well.”

The bill itself generally lays out the form and function of how a presidential primary election would work, and largely mirrors provisions that currently govern the state’s existing summer primary election structure. It sets the presidential primary election date for Tuesday immediately preceding the last Tuesday in January (in 2024, that would be on Jan. 23).

The measure would also require at least 10 days of early voting, extending through the Friday before the election. It also copies over provisions allowing same-day registration that currently exist in law to allow apply to presidential primary elections.

It also includes provisions that would include a presidential primary election as an “affected election” and subject to the provisions of AB4, the near-universal mail balloting measure from the 2020 election

The bill would also require the state to pay for the costs of holding the primary election. Frierson said Monday that he didn’t have an estimate as to how much the election could cost the state, but said he planned to talk to local election officials to ensure that the process would be kept “broad as far as access goes, but manageable as far as cost goes.”

Freshman Orientation: Senator Roberta Lange

As in sessions past, The Nevada Independent is publishing a series of profiles featuring all the new lawmakers in the state. This is the sixth installment of more than a dozen. Check back in the coming days for additional stories on new legislators' backgrounds, interests and policy positions.

SENATOR ROBERTA LANGE

  • Freshman Democrat who succeeds Democratic Sen. David Parks
  • Represents District 7, which includes parts of Las Vegas southeast of the Strip and north of Henderson 
  • District 7 leans heavily Democratic (43.5 percent Democratic, 23.8 percent Republican and 25.8 percent nonpartisan in the 2020 election)
  • Lange defeated two other candidates — former Assembly members Ellen Spiegel and Richard Carrillo — in the 2020 Democratic primary with 38.2 percent of the vote.
  • She did not face an opponent in the 2020 general election
  • She will sit on the Education, Legislative Operations and Elections, and Commerce and Labor committees

FAMILY AND EDUCATION

Born in California and raised in Whitefish, Montana, Lange attended and obtained her undergraduate degree from a private Christian college in Southern California on a basketball scholarship (the school is now The Master’s University, but was previously named Los Angeles Baptist College).

After graduating, she moved to Washington state and took a job as a public school teacher. She met her husband, Ken, at a teacher’s conference, and moved to Las Vegas in 1995. She has four adult children.

CAREER

Lange is a retired public school teacher, but is best known for her past involvement with Democratic Party campaign and issues, including serving as chair of the Nevada State Democratic Party from 2011 to 2017.

PROFILE

For a brief period of time in 2016, Roberta Lange was in the center of the national political universe.

The simmering conflict between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary erupted during a raucous Nevada state party convention, filled with accusations of rule-bending and cheating over the awarding of Nevada’s delegates to choose the next Democratic nominee for president.

In the center of the firestorm was Lange — the state party chairwoman, and soon the object of scorn and even death threats from Sanders supporters around the country.

Five years later, Lange said the attacks and attention from her role in the convention have largely evaporated. In talking with Democratic primary voters while running her office, she said she spoke with several Sanders supporters who were at the convention, but was able to have calmer, productive conversations about what had happened.

“People had deep convictions for what they believed in, whether it was Medicare for All, or a progressive agenda, and they want to make sure that that was a part of the overall package moving forward, and that Bernie Sanders was the best messenger for them in that situation,” she said. “I think they still have those convictions. I have my convictions, but now I think we can talk about it.”

With the benefit of hindsight, she said the entirety of the experience re-committed her to involvement in political life.

“After I was able to step away and heal myself, my voice inside of me... said, you still have that conviction, and you can't let it go, you still have to fight for what you believe in,” she said. “And I think it never went away. And it's stronger than ever. And so I think things happen in our lives for a reason, and if we can take those things and grow from it, then we are better in the end.”

Lange’s interest in political issues didn’t begin at an early age — her family largely avoided bringing up the topic, and a similar dynamic awaited her at college. But after moving to Washington to take a teaching job, she joined her teacher’s union and a “whole new world opened up to me.”

She served two terms as president of the Washington State Education Association, spent time as the union’s chief negotiator and lobbied the state legislature on education issues. A memento from that time followed her to Carson City — a framed photo of her (then a teachers’ union lobbyist) sitting at a Washington state senator’s desk, whom she had visited to lobby.

“I remember asking him if I could please sit at his desk,” she said. “And so I'm going to take that picture to Carson City, because I think that's when I first thought that maybe I would like to be in elected office someday. And sometimes those things have a life of their own.”

Lange moved to Nevada in 1995 after meeting her husband at a national teachers convention, taking a job at Durango High School. But her involvement in the political sphere continued apace — taking a position as a deputy campaign manager in U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s 1998 re-election campaign. Additional political stints included work for a congressional candidate (Tom Gallagher), Dina Titus’s gubernatorial campaign in 2006 and state director for former presidential candidate Bill Richardson in 2008.

She then transitioned to party politics, chairing the Clark County Democratic Party for three years and eventually taking over as chair of the Nevada State Democratic Party in 2011 — a role she held for three two-year terms (she also mounted an unsuccessful bid for Democratic National Committee secretary in 2017).

Despite two decades in either behind-the-scenes or party organization roles, Lange said she always had an interest eventually running for office — finally taking the plunge after longtime Democratic Sen. David Parks termed out of office after the 2019 session. She said it was “hard to run against people that are your friends” — Lange narrowly defeated two former Assembly Democrats in the primary — but that she knew it was her time to run for office.

“I felt like I had gathered all my tools,” she said. “And all the years that I had been in political work, that I would be ready to run whenever the opportunity presented itself. And so, this time was the time.”

State Senator Roberta Lange on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

ON THE ISSUES

Ending the caucus and other election issues

While saying that she wants Nevada to remain early or even first on the presidential nominating calendar, Lange said she would support moving Nevada from a caucus to primary election state.

It’s a move being worked on by Nevada Democrats statewide — part of the jostle between the early states on the primary election calendar — and is likely to come up in the Legislature, with Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson proposing a bill that would enable the state to transition away from a caucus to a primary election.

Lange said she liked that the caucus process required presidential candidates to campaign in the community, and hoped that a similar dynamic would continue to exist even if Nevada switched its election process for presidential preference contests.

“Whether we're a caucus state or a primary state, I want the same kinds of things to happen with the candidates, because I think we reflect the fabric of the nation,” she said.

Lange also said she was working on a bill draft that she described as “revisions” to current laws governing political parties, based on her experience as head of the state Democratic Party. She declined to give explicit details as the proposal is still in the works, but said it would include reducing the size of political party conventions and also getting rid of precinct chairs. 

Taxes

Lange declined to stake a position on any of the pending tax issues facing the Legislature, including proposals by the Clark County Education Association to hike the sales and gaming tax rates, measures passed during the 2020 special sessions changing the constitutional limits on mining taxes and any effort to change the property tax formula.

Lange said that she thought teachers should be paid more, but was cautious about pushing for any tax increases given that the state’s economy was still in a recovery phase.

“I'm not a person that thinks we should be governed by petitions,” she said. “I was an educator, where I lobbied and always asked for more money, and more money, and more money to raise salaries, and we never got it. I understand the frustration, and I want to help find a solution. It's just really hard at this time when everybody's getting cuts to talk about how we give more.”

Other legislative proposals

Lange’s list of bill draft request topics cover a wide range of subjects, including:

  • Updating planned unit development laws for counties or cities to streamline the process for businesses to make “minor changes” without going through the normal zoning or code process
  • Education changes, including allowing for college credits if high school students get certain seals on their diplomas, and a civics program that includes community service projects and recognizing “schools of distinction” in civics education
  • A measure related to energy storage
  • Health care changes, including allowing cancer patients to access drugs typically reserved for more serious cancer cases earlier in their treatment, and a measure related to female privacy and medical examinations

University presidents, including Sandoval, pen letter in support of renaming McCarran airport after Sen. Harry Reid

UNR President and former Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval joined his UNLV counterpart, President Keith Whitfield, in a letter Thursday to the Clark County Commission supporting changing the namesake of Las Vegas’ international airport from controversial Sen. Pat McCarran to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. 

In their letter, the presidents praised Reid as “one of the most effective and distinguished public servants in the history of Nevada,” and said that the senator’s personal contributions “have significantly increased access and opportunities for our students.”

“The airport in Las Vegas is one of the great public resources in our state, and is seen by millions from around the world,” the presidents wrote. “Among his list of exceptional accomplishments, Senator Reid’s work on behalf of the airport has helped Nevada become a great global destination. We support honoring Senator Reid’s decades of service for the great State of Nevada by renaming the airport in the community and state that he has helped build and prosper.”

Thursday’s letter places Sandoval among the most prominent Republicans calling for the change, which has gained steam since being introduced in the County Commission earlier this month.

Sandoval was also appointed to the federal bench in 2005 on Reid’s recommendation, though he would later resign that seat in order to run for governor in 2010. 

Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom has led the most recent charge to change the airport’s name, arguing in part that McCarran’s name “doesn’t represent the diversity of our community.”

The airport’s original namesake, the highly-influential Sen. McCarran, who served in the U.S. senate from 1933 until his death in 1954, has long been scrutinized for his instrumental role in the McCarthyist communist witch hunts of the 1950s and a documented legacy of racism, anti-semitism and xenophobia.

The senator’s defenders have seized on McCarran’s history as a champion of labor rights, including efforts to implement the eight-hour workday. 

But McCarran’s critics have often characterized his immigration policies as “draconian,” pointing in particular to restrictive immigration policies that limited immigration for Jewish refugees after the holocaust and expanded deportation laws. 

In defending one such law after a veto by President Harry Truman, the restrictive McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, McCarran said: “If this oasis of the world should be overrun, perverted, contaminated, or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished.”

By 2017, that history had become so problematic that Nevada’s congressional Democrats wrote to state leaders to urge them to approve the removal of a statue of McCarran from Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill. 

The statue remains in the Capitol building to this day, however, even after a second letter asking for its removal was sent by the state’s Congressional Democrats in 2020. 

In 2017, Segerblom — at the time a state senator — also introduced legislation in Carson City that would have stripped McCarran’s name from the Las Vegas airport. However, that bill, SB174, never received a vote and ultimately died in committee. 

Presidents' Letter Supporting Airport Renaming by Jacob Solis on Scribd

Indy DC Download: Soft Senate GOP support for guilt in impeachment trial gives rise to possible censure

Talk has begun of a possible censure of former President Donald Trump after Senate Republicans signaled last week that they were unlikely to vote to convict him for inciting the Jan. 6 riot in the U.S. Capitol. 

The Senate Tuesday defeated, on a 55 to 45 vote, a motion from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) to dismiss Trump's Senate impeachment trial because he argued it is unconstitutional to try a president no longer in office. 

The 55, which included all Democrats and five Republicans, is 12 GOP members shy of the 67 needed to convict in the trial, sparking interest in possibly censuring Trump. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), said they are working on a resolution. But it’s unclear whether Senate Democratic leaders, who remain focused on holding the trial, would bring it to the floor.

When asked whether they would support a censure resolution, Nevada’s House and Senate Democrats said they would consider it. But all stressed that there must be accountability for Trump.

“I voted to impeach Donald Trump because he committed the high crime and misdemeanor of inciting an insurrection against the United States,” Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nevada) said of the vote she cast on Jan. 13.

“The Senate should hold him accountable for threatening the foundation of our republic,” Titus continued. “If Republican Senators resort to cowardice and vote to acquit despite the overwhelming evidence, I will consider other options at that time.”

Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nevada), the only GOP lawmaker in the congressional delegation, said, through his office, that he’d comment if it ever comes to a vote. He stressed that he did not support Trump's impeachment, in part, over concerns about due process for the former president. Trump was impeached by the House one week after the riot.

Congressional Democrats, also last week, geared up for a partisan push on a $1.9 trillion COVID-aid package if a deal cannot soon be struck with enough Senate Republicans to pass the measure.

Last week also saw the Senate approve the nominations of former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen to serve as treasury secretary and Antony Blinken to serve as secretary of state. Both Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) and Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada) voted for those nominations. 

The House was not in session last week.

Impeachment

Cortez Masto and Rosen both voted with all Democrats and five Republicans to dismiss Paul’s resolution. Cortez Masto has said she believes it is constitutional to try a former officeholder.

It’s a question that each member of the Senate must weigh and a key issue that will be litigated in the trial. The consensus among legal scholars is that there is precedent for impeaching a former officeholder, according to the  Congressional Research Service (CRS), Congress' research branch. 

The vote came after the Senate GOP was briefed by George Washington University legal scholar Jonathan Turley, who argued that it is unconstitutional.

Asked if Turley's presentation had any effect on how Republicans voted, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) said, “I think it reinforced what a lot of people thought, I don’t know if it changed any minds.”

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), one of the five Republicans who voted with Democrats to kill the Paul motion, told reporters that the presentation did not change his mind. Romney believes that it is constitutional because the House impeached Trump while he was in office.

“Both sides of the argument were presented, and I reached the same conclusion, which is I believe it's constitutional to proceed with a trial of impeachment once the president is out of office,” Romney said. “That would be in pretty narrow circumstances. I believe the impeachment itself would have to be made while the president was in office, meaning that the House impeachment articles would have to be drafted and voted upon in the House before someone left office.” 

But the majority of the GOP did not share Romney's rationale. Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota) said the vote shows that Republicans believe that Congress' constitutional authority is weak, at best. However, he stressed that Republicans intend to listen to the evidence presented before deciding whether to convict.

“I think that most of our members sort of fell on the side of we questioned the constitutionality of being able to do this to a private citizen,” Thune told reporters. “I know some people may say it's a technicality, but it's a pretty big issue and precedent that we will be setting if we do try somebody who's left office.” 

“But I don't think this changes anything,” Thune continued. “I think there are enough of our members who have said they're going, as a juror, are going to weigh the evidence and come to a conclusion at that time. But I think this was indicative of where a lot of people's heads are.”

Nevertheless, the signal sent by the vote—that there are not enough Republicans who will vote with all Democrats to convict Trump—spurred talk of censuring Trump. 

But it’s unclear if that would come in lieu of a trial or after a trial. Kaine said last week it could come after, but he is skeptical that there will be an appetite to talk about Trump after the trial.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), last week, stressed that there would be a Senate impeachment trial.

Cortez Masto and Rosen said they are both focused on being jurors in the impeachment trial but would consider options after the trial. 

“Former President Trump needs to be held responsible for his actions to sow distrust in our free and fair election and disrupt the sacred tradition of a peaceful transfer of power.” Cortez Masto said in a comment provided by her office. “Right now, I’m focused on fulfilling my constitutional duty during the impeachment trial, but I will continue to look at Senator Kaine’s proposal should additional steps be necessary to ensure accountability.” 

Rosen echoed Cortez Masto and said her office is also looking at Kaine’s proposal. “No President has been censured since before the Civil War,” Rosen said through her office. “Whether we ensure justice through an impeachment trial or censure, there must be accountability for the attack on Congress.”

Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nevada) said that it would be up to the Senate to decide Trump’s fate on impeachment, but that she too would consider censure if it comes to that.

Trump “should absolutely be held accountable, whether that’s through conviction in the Senate or through censure,” Lee said through her office. “I voted for impeachment in the House, and now whatever happens next is up to the Senate.” 

Rep. Steven Horford (D-Nevada), through his office, said, “I believe that Donald Trump and all those who worked to incite insurrection against our Capitol must be held accountable.”

The Senate also approved, 83 to 17, an agreement to delay the start of the trial until Feb. 9. That gives House prosecutors and Trump’s legal time until Feb. 8 to prepare their cases. Both Cortez Masto and Rosen voted to lock in the deal.  

COVID aid

Meanwhile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) said Thursday that the House would vote on the budget resolution next week. Approval of the House spending blueprint is the first step needed to pass President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-relief proposal through the reconciliation process. Reconciliation allows passage of tax and spending legislation in the Senate with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes typically needed to overcome a filibuster.

The prospect of reconciliation comes as Nevada is suffering from the nation's second-highest unemployment rate, 9.2 percent in December. It also comes as the U.S. Department of Labor reported that nearly 112,000 initial Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) filed claims to the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) last week. That’s more than a quarter of 426,856 PUA claims filed nationwide last week. Many claims are suspected by DETR to be fraudulent. The PUA program helps the self-employed and gig workers who are not entitled to unemployment assistance.

Schumer also indicated that the Senate would likely take up its budget resolution next week. 

Steps toward a reconciliation package come as Pelosi, Schumer and Biden have said that they would prefer to try to win Republican support for a package but do not intend to wait long for that to come about. Programs established to help the unemployed, including PUA, expire in March. 

Pelosi said Thursday that ramping up the process could help a group of eight Republican and eight Democratic senators who have been working with the White House to agree. 

“We have to be ready,” Pelosi said when asked about reconciliation. “I do think we have more leverage getting cooperation on the other side if we have an alternative.”

But one member of the group, Sen. Todd Young (R-Indiana), said that pursuing reconciliation would trigger a backlash among Republicans and dismissed Pelosi’s comments as partisan bluster. 

“Look, I still hold out some hope that President Biden means what he said before he was sworn in, which is that he wants to unify this country and unify it through its elected representatives here in Congress,” Young said. “I don't have much faith that Nancy Pelosi wants to do the same.”

Miscellany 

The Senate is nearing an organizing resolution, which will allow new senators to get committee assignments and seat Democrats as chairs of each committee. 

Once the resolution is approved, it will cause a shakeup in the committee rosters, which currently favor Republicans, who had the majority last legislative session.

Cortez Masto is currently the top Democrat on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee’s Economic Policy Subcommittee and on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s Water and Power Subcommittee. She could become chair of those two panels, but nothing is set until the organizing resolution is agreed to and implemented.

Talks on an organizing resolution between Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) had stalled over McConnell’s demand that he get an assurance that Democrats would not act to weaken the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to advance most legislation. But McConnell relented after two Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, said they would not support action on the filibuster.

Also, Rosen spoke on the Senate floor last week in support of the nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas, who would be the first Latino and first immigrant, to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). 

“Whether it’s combating extremism, foreign or domestic terrorism, cyber-attacks, or adversaries from abroad, Mr. Mayorkas expressed a clear commitment to keeping our nation safe and is fully prepared and qualified to serve as the head of DHS,” Rosen said. “I will vote for Ali Mayorkas, and I urge my colleagues to do the same.” 

Republicans have been outspoken about their opposition to Mayorkas stemming from his previous stint as director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services between 2009 and 2013. 

According to an investigation by the DHS Inspector General released in 2015, Mayorkas showed favoritism to three projects under the EB-5 visa program, including a Las Vegas casino project pushed by former Sen. Harry Reid.

The casino project in question was the SLS Hotel and Casino and involved about 230 investors. 

Mayorkas intervened at Reid’s behest for an expedited review of the investor's petition “notwithstanding the career staff’s original decision not to do so,” the report said. 

Mayorkas “also took the extraordinary step of requiring his staff to brief Sen. Reid’s staff on a weekly basis for several months,” the report said.

The EB-5 program allows foreign nationals to invest between $500,000 and $1 million in U.S.-based projects. Among the program’s criteria: the project must create at least 10 full-time jobs to render investors eligible to receive legal residency for themselves, their spouses and minor children.

Mayorkas was never found to have broken any laws and rejected the idea that he gave any preference.

“When I had the authority and therefore the responsibility, to fix problems, I fixed problems through the cases that the agency handled,” Mayorkas said at his confirmation hearing last week. “Three cases that are cited in the inspector general’s report are three of hundreds and hundreds of cases that I became involved in at the request of the senators and members of the House of Representatives on both sides of the aisle.”

Asked about Mayorkas’ work for Reid, Rosen said, in a statement from her office, that “Mr. Mayorkas addressed these allegations under oath during his confirmation hearing.”

Last week, Cortez Masto, at an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, received assurances from former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Biden’s choice to lead the Department of Energy (DOE), not push to build a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.  

Granholm added that the White House intends to find alternatives to Yucca and that DOE supports a bill Cortez Masto and Rosen plan to re-introduce that would require consent from states— including Nevada—to build a nuclear waste dump within its borders. Consent would also be needed from affected local governments and Indian tribes. 

Granholm also assured Cortez Masto that DOE would continue to abide by an agreement brokered by Cortez Masto in April 2019 and former Energy Secretary Rick Perry to remove plutonium shipped to the state by 2026. 

“The plan is to follow the agreement that you negotiated,” Granholm said.

The shipment, a half metric ton of plutonium to Nevada from the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, was disclosed early in 2019 as part of Nevada's lawsuit to prevent any such shipment after talks with DOE yielded no resolution. 

For a full rundown of the measures the delegates supported or opposed this week, check out The Nevada Independent’s congressional vote tracker and other information below.

SEN. CATHERINE CORTEZ MASTO

Legislation co-sponsored:

S.142 – A bill to prohibit the application of certain restrictive eligibility requirements to foreign nongovernmental organizations with respect to the provision of assistance under part I of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.

S.130 – A bill to extend to the Mayor of the District of Columbia the same authority over the National Guard of the District of Columbia as the Governors of the several States exercise over the National Guard of those States with respect to administration of the National Guard and its use to respond to natural disasters and other civil disturbances, and for other purposes.

S.96 – A bill to provide for the long-term improvement of public school facilities, and for other purposes.

S.90 – A bill to amend the District of Columbia Home Rule Act to repeal the authority of the President to assume emergency control of the police of the District of Columbia.

S.57 – A bill to increase the ability of nursing facilities to access to telehealth services and obtain technologies to allow virtual visits during the public health emergency relating to an outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), and for other purposes.

S.51 – A bill to provide for the admission of the State of Washington, D.C. into the Union.

SEN. JACKY ROSEN

Legislation sponsored:

S.122 – A bill to provide a credit against payroll taxes to businesses and nonprofit organizations that purchase or upgrade ventilation and air filtration systems to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other airborne communicable diseases.

S.121 – A bill to amend the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to establish demonstration and pilot projects to facilitate education and training programs in the field of advanced manufacturing.

S.94 – A bill to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide the work opportunity tax credit with respect to hiring veterans who are receiving educational assistance under laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs or Defense.

Legislation co-sponsored:

S.142 – A bill to prohibit the application of certain restrictive eligibility requirements to foreign nongovernmental organizations with respect to the provision of assistance under part I of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.

S.120 – A bill to prevent and respond to the misuse of communications services that facilitates domestic violence and other crimes.

S.115 – A bill to direct the Secretary of Commerce to conduct a study and submit to Congress a report on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the travel and tourism industry in the United States, and for other purposes.

S.96 – A bill to provide for the long-term improvement of public school facilities, and for other purposes.

S.72 – A bill to require full funding of part A of title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

S.57 – A bill to increase the ability of nursing facilities to access to telehealth services and obtain technologies to allow virtual visits during the public health emergency relating to an outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), and for other purposes.

S.53 – A bill to provide for increases in the Federal minimum wage, and for other purposes.

S.51 – A bill to provide for the admission of the State of Washington, D.C. into the Union.

REP. DINA TITUS

Legislation co-sponsored:

H.R. 604 – To provide for the long-term improvement of public school facilities, and for other purposes.

H.R. 603 – To provide for increases in the Federal minimum wage, and for other purposes.

H.R. 572 – To establish the National Office of New Americans within the Executive Office of the President, and for other purposes.

H.R. 571 – To improve United States consideration of, and strategic support for, programs to prevent and respond to gender-based violence beginning with the onset of humanitarian emergencies, to build the capacity of humanitarian assistance to address the immediate and long-term challenges resulting from such violence, and for other purposes.

H.R. 556 – To prohibit the application of certain restrictive eligibility requirements to foreign nongovernmental organizations with respect to the provision of assistance under part I of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.

REP. MARK AMODEI

Legislation co-sponsored:

H.R. 619 – To amend title 18, United States Code, to prohibit a health care practitioner from failing to exercise the proper degree of care in the case of a child who survives an abortion or attempted abortion.

H.R. 543 – To prohibit the President from issuing moratoria on leasing and permitting energy and minerals on certain Federal land, and for other purposes.

REP. SUSIE LEE

Legislation co-sponsored:

H.R. 604 – To provide for the long-term improvement of public school facilities, and for other purposes.

H.R. 7 – To amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to provide more effective remedies to victims of discrimination in the payment of wages on the basis of sex, and for other purposes.

H.Con. Res. 9 – Honoring the life and legacy of United States Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick.

REP. STEVEN HORSFORD

Legislation co-sponsored:

H.R. 616 – To prohibit water shutoffs during the COVID-19 emergency period, provide drinking and waste water assistance to households, and for other purposes.

H.R. 615 – To provide a payroll credit for certain fixed expenses of employers subject to closure by reason of COVID-19.

H.R. 604 – To provide for the long-term improvement of public school facilities, and for other purposes.

H.R. 603 – To provide for increases in the Federal minimum wage, and for other purposes.

H.R. 602 – To provide State and local workforce and career and technical education systems with support to respond to the COVID-19 national emergency.

H.R. 574 – To require the Secretary of the Treasury to conduct outreach to inform certain individuals of their potential eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, and for other purposes.

H.R. 572 – To establish the National Office of New Americans within the Executive Office of the President, and for other purposes.

H.R. 556 – To prohibit the application of certain restrictive eligibility requirements to foreign nongovernmental organizations with respect to the provision of assistance under part I of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.

H.R. 503 – To require $20 notes to include a portrait of Harriet Tubman, and for other purposes.