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Plants bloom in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter. 

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There’s a lot going on right now. A ruling on the Las Vegas pipeline. Pumped storage proposals in the north and south. And an Instagram indictment for public lands vandalism. At the end of today’s newsletter, we catch up with the director of the parks and recreation for the City of Las Vegas to talk about the role of recreation and the Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

As always, we want to hear from our readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting (or could affect) you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at [email protected]. Message me for Signal or PGP. Here’s what we’re watching this week:

The Las Vegas pipeline, part 6446 in an ongoing series. On Monday, a District Court judge denied water rights that are at the core of the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s proposal to pump rural groundwater from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas. The ruling, though not entirely unexpected, is the latest twist in litigation that has played out in state and federal court. 

Quick background: In 2013, Senior District Court Judge Robert Estes asked Nevada’s top water regulator, the state engineer, to recalculate the water rights in question per guidelines that he set forth in a remand order. The state engineer did so in Ruling 6446 and denied the water rights, despite misgivings about the analysis that the District Court required in the 2013 order. The water authority appealed Ruling 6446. And on Monday, Estes denied the appeal, backing down on his legal reasoning and affirming the state’s reluctant decision to deny the water rights.

That’s the nitty-gritty, but here are some 30,000-foot view dynamics on the pipeline as it stands:

  • In response to the ruling, Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones called on the water authority “to look in a different direction and consider ending the legal fight.” It’s worth noting that Jones is on the water authority’s board, which will have to take up the issue again in the coming year. And the project relies on buy-in from local electeds.
  • The water authority’s response to the ruling emphasized the fact that the project would not be needed for at least three decades, underscoring a changed dynamic. Because of conservation, the water authority has put the project in the very back of its portfolio. 
  • But it’s not dead. The water authority has not said whether it will appeal. 

More immediate infrastructure to consider. The Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote an important piece this week about the water authority looking to move forward with $3 billion in infrastructure, in part to connect the Apex Industrial Park to the Colorado River supply. This will be interesting to watch, given the challenges of developing water at Apex, as we have covered.

The National Labor Relations Board denied Nevada Gold Mines’ effort to force a union vote for employees at its Carlin-trend mines, The Elko Daily Free Press reported. The decision came as the mining company, a joint-venture between Barrick and Newmont, faces an Unfair Labor Practice claim from the union, which has backed Newmont’s miners for decades. Before the joint-venture was formed last year, the Operating Engineers Local 3 had finalized a three-year collective bargaining agreement with Newmont management. We’ll keep on following this.

The buckwheat. State regulators are conducting a review and two open houses — one in Tonopah and one in Carson City — as part of its review of the Tiehm’s buckwheat, an endemic species that is threatened by activity related to lithium mining and exploration. See the Nevada Current for more. The threats to the buckwheat, first brought to light by the Center for Biological Diversity, symbolize the tension between the conservation of public land and increased pressure to develop those lands, including for technologies (electric cars, batteries, solar fields, etc...) that address climate change. Using the buckwheat as an example, the group — and a subsequent whistleblower complaint — also raised questions about whether federal land managers at the Bureau of Land Management were adequately enforcing bedrock environmental laws.

Last week, Reno News & Review published a story about the Supreme Court’s decision last year to reverse the conviction of Bob Coache, a former deputy state engineer, who Clark County prosecutors accused of a scheme to sell water to the Southern Nevada Water Authority. The Supreme Court concluded that the evidence was insufficient to prove the charges, which included bribery and money laundering. Coache, who served 16 months in prison, said in the article that he is weighing his legal options and seeking compensation for wrongful prosecution. 

Lots of ink has been spilled on Instagram in the outdoors, but here’s one I didn’t see coming. Two Elko residents were indicted this week after allegedly vandalizing buildings and public land along Nevada State Route 318. Then they posted it on Instagram. Troopers apparently found 100 cans of spray paint in the back of their car. The Reno Gazette Journal has more. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved a preliminary permit for a proposal to develop a pumped energy storage project in the mountains above Walker Lake, as the Reno Gazette Journal reported. The project is contentious, as is one in Pyramid Lake that is being developed by the same company. We wrote about them in November last year. The idea was harshly criticized by the Walker River Paiute Tribe, which was not consulted. And environmental groups worried that the project could counteract decades of work to restore Walker Lake. 

Last year, I spent some time trying to determine how the project would affect lake levels, despite scant information. The company predicts about a one-foot drop in the lake elevation as water is cycled in and out. In addition, there would be losses to seepage and evaporation that the company told me they would make up by purchasing water. But rights are hard to come by.

Speaking of water rights and the Walker River watershed, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in a case that could determine the role of regulators to factor in “public trust values” (the environment, recreation, etc…) when permitting water for private use. The arguments were interesting, and we posted a summary. This is an important case to watch.

Three questions for the head of Las Vegas’ parks and recreation department: For about eight months, Greg Weitzel has directed the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees 11 community centers, more than 80 parks and hundreds of miles of trails. Although he is new to Las Vegas, Weitzel has worked as a director in Idaho and Pennsylvania for more than 20 years. With Congress poised to permanently appropriate money to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), we talked to Weitzel about recreation in Nevada. He noted that regional parks, including Floyd Lamb Park and Sunset Park, have benefited from the funds. 

1/ From a 30,000-foot point-of-view, why is this [funding] important for Nevada? And how will it affect people’s everyday lives in Las Vegas or other jurisdictions? “We all know that Vegas is growing at a fast clip, right? It’s hard to keep up with the growth and when these developments come in, we’re requiring park space, trail space, open space, green space. This is what our families and kids need to get outdoors and connect with nature. We can talk about money and millions and millions of dollars, but really it’s about protecting land and creating access to the outdoors that is the real benefit of the LWCF fund.”

2/ Do you think outdoor reaction has been adequately recognized as an important part of the economy in Las Vegas or elsewhere? “I think yes and no. It depends on the state. You know, there are some states like Wyoming and Montana and Idaho that count on [it]. If it wasn’t for Yellowstone, there are entire towns that wouldn’t be alive and well today — they count on outdoor recreation to bolster their economy and make their towns run. I think it’s the same here with Las Vegas. People are coming here not just for the Strip. They’re also coming here and then taking off and they’re going up to Zion and they’re going to the Grand Canyon. And they’re going to Red Rock. They’re going to the state parks. They’re coming here to fish and hunt and get to the West.”

3/ Do you have a favorite place that you like to recreate? “Right now, being new here, it’s Red Rock Canyon… I go out there almost on a weekly basis. I’m hiking, I’m taking family and friends that come to visit. Everyone can’t believe we have that awesome outdoor National Conservation Area right here. Most people, they think of Vegas [and] they think of the Strip. And so it’s one of the first things I want to do — take them out and around and show them the parks, the trails. But Red Rock is definitely my favorite. And by the way, Red Rock has received over $3 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund over time.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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