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Four Nevada environmental issues to watch in 2023

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
Fly fishing on the Truckee River

Good morning, and welcome to (a holiday edition) of the Indy Environment newsletter. Hope you are having a wonderful holiday, and I hope this is the start of a healthy and happy new year! 

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 [email protected]

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The water year and the drought: The start to the water year began strong, with near or above average snowpack across most of the state. At this point, it is hard to predict what the rest of the year will look like. But nearly all of Nevada — along with much of the West — remains in some degree of prolonged drought, a deficit created by several back-to-back years of arid conditions. 

Some of these conditions are visible. To put a couple of numbers on it: As of Dec. 1, Lahontan Reservoir was at 7 percent of capacity. Near Fallon, the reservoir captures flows off the Carson River and diverted flows off of the Truckee River. Rye Patch Reservoir, located on the Humboldt River outside the town of Lovelock, sat at 4 percent of capacity. Combined reservoir storage on the Walker River was at about 22 percent. And Lake Mead? More on that in a later section.

Precipitation is only one part of the equation. There are a number of variables that go into how snowpack melts and runs off into streams and rivers. If soils are drier, for instance, the runoff in the spring might be less efficient, affecting the amount of water that makes it into any given river.

In many places, the drought places further strain on an already strained system. In some cases, there are more rights than there is water to go around. Add to that pressures from more growth. 

It will be worth watching how policymakers in Nevada factor the drought into decision-making, especially with a new legislative session beginning next year. How will water be incorporated into economic development decisions? Into funding for water agencies? How will policymakers weigh environmental concerns? Commitments that the state made to water users in the past? 

One factoid that Justice James Hardesty cited when I interviewed him last month stands out to me: “Without question, the highest number of Supreme Court decisions on [water law] have existed within the last decade as compared to all of the decades preceding 2010 …”

A rush to build in an energy transition: Lithium mining. Geothermal plants. Solar fields. They are all components of a national and global economy that is moving away from fossil fuels and transitioning toward renewable power for electricity and transportation. And major corporations are looking to develop in the Great Basin, which is rich in lithium deposits, geothermal potential and year-round sun. But in many cases, much of the public land where these projects might go is accounted for in some way, managed by the federal government to serve multiple uses. 

Every week, my inbox is filled with press announcements about new projects or those already in the pipeline. A few from just the past month: Chevron formed a joint venture seeking geothermal in Esmeralda County. The Biden administration announced plans to ramp up solar development on public land. Ioneer, at the center of a controversy of a rare endangered buckwheat, is starting its permitting process. Next month, a judge will hear a case brought by environmental groups, a rancher and Indigenous communities challenging permits for a lithium mine at Thacker Pass.

Exactly where such projects go — and the speed at which they move forward under political and economic pressure — is an issue worth watching in 2023. Expect to see lobbying at all levels.

A big question is how federal land managers weigh these proposals. The federal government oversees about 85 percent of Nevada’s land and will accordingly lead the permitting for many of these projects — some of which disrupt ecosystems, migratory corridors and stress water resources. These issues are nuanced, in many cases (see Clayton Valley and lithium). 

How these issues are considered in project permitting — and whether a government-wide plan is created to deal with an influx of new projects in the Great Basin — will be important to watch.

Negotiations on the Colorado River: The Colorado River, which is the source of nearly all of the Las Vegas Valley’s drinking water, is so complicated and consequential it deserves its own category here. 

The watershed continues to face a serious shortage, with extremely low amounts of water stored at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s two largest reservoirs. Together, the Colorado River serves 40 million people. The watershed spans seven Western states, 30 tribal nations and Mexico. And despite pleas from federal officials throughout 2022, water users have failed to come up with a consensus agreement about how to cut what they take out of the river.  

One way or another, though, the cuts are coming next year. 

Earlier this year, the federal government initiated a formal planning process to reconfigure how the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will operate the reservoirs in emergency conditions in coming years. The actions being contemplated would involve reductions in water use — and they would likely have a sizable impact on the states that are downstream of Lake Mead, largely Arizona and California. The two Southwest states account for the biggest downstream uses of the river. 

At a recent conference, the federal government indicated that the preferable path forward would be some sort of consensus plan, agreed upon and negotiated by the seven states. It’s possible that the states will get to an agreement by an early 2023 deadline. Either way, though, cuts are going to have to be made in 2023. And they are likely going to be painful for water users in the basin. The crisis, despite its echoes to water issues elsewhere, is on a different size and scope. 

Everything feels larger on the Colorado River. 

A point made earlier this year by the Audubon Society’s Colorado River program director, Jennifer Pitt, stuck with me. Who gets left out when water users on the Colorado River are living on the “razor’s edge?” Whose concerns are not taken into consideration? And will it cause water users to repeat mistakes of the past? A few (of many) questions to think about going into 2023.

A new administration in Carson City: Next week, Gov.-elect Joe Lombardo will become Gov. Lombardo, taking the helm of state government. When it comes to environmental issues, a lot of focus goes to the federal government, given its significant role managing public land in Nevada and enforcing laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. 

But the state executive branch plays a sweeping role in setting and executing policies when it comes to everything from energy to wildlife, water to mine permitting. In addition, the governor can influence policy results through appointments to state boards and regulatory commissions. 

In his campaign, Lombardo, a Republican, focused on two issues: water and wildfires. But it’s likely that his priorities will become more apparent with the introduction of a proposed budget and his State of the State address heading into the legislative session — not to mention his appointments.

A big question is how Lombardo approaches climate change in his policymaking. What does a Lombardo administration mean for the state’s climate strategy, an expansive plan that details the state’s path to net-zero emissions by 2050? What about the strategy’s stated goal calling to eventually transition away from natural gas? One clue might be in Lombardo’s appointment of a Southwest Gas official to his transition team (the utility had expressed concerns about the plan). 

At the same time, many of the state’s climate goals are set by statute, including a renewable portfolio standard for utilities of 50 percent by 2030. And there is some money on the table — the federal government set aside funding for climate programs in the Inflation Reduction Act. 

As the administration comes into office, it will be important to watch the new governor’s budget for energy and environmental programs and, of course, how the administration interacts with a Democrat-controlled Legislature in a state with a significant solar and geothermal industry.


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