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This was a foreboding and frightening week across the West. Fires burned across California and Oregon with smoke billowing into Nevada. This satellite imagery helps capture the scale of the wildfires. But the personal toll of the fires, and the apocalyptic nature of the red skies, is so large that it’s hard to quantify. And there are so many fires it often seems hard to keep track.
The L.A. Times did an excellent piece on the harrowing emergency rescue operation that took place around Mammoth Pool Reservoir in the western side of the Sierra. As many outlets noted, this is what climate change looks like (CapRadio, PBS Newshour). And the thing about climate change is it does not occur in a bubble. All of this — emergency response, smoke in the air — is happening during the pandemic. We’ll be reporting more on all of that in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with tips or feedback at [email protected].
This August was the hottest on record for Nevada.
The same is true, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported, for California, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado — all states that are part of the Colorado River Basin, the lifeblood for most of the southwest. Although mean summer temperatures, measured from June to August, generally did not set records this year, they remained much above average.
Climate models predict temperatures will continue rising, especially in urban areas, where air temperature is often made hotter by asphalt coverage and urban planning (Brookings Mountain West and The Lincy Institute released a fact-sheet looking at the urban heat island in Nevada).
And the effects of heat are not evenly distributed. According to an NPR report looking at satellite and census tract data, there is a strong connection between heat and income distribution in Las Vegas and North Las Vegas. The report found a moderate connection in Reno and Henderson.
The heat waves, the wildfires, the smoke. Temperature extremes.
It all sets the stage for what is starting next week. A discussion of what to do.
On Monday, state officials will begin hosting a series of listening sessions on climate change. The newly created Nevada Climate Initiative is seeking public input on eight topics: renewable energy, land use, transportation, air quality, urban planning, economic recovery, green buildings and climate justice. The goal is to develop a state climate strategy by the end of the year.
Here’s what else I’m watching this week:
Colorado River states and the Utah pipeline: All of the states that rely on the Colorado River (except Utah) asked the Department of Interior Tuesday to pause the permitting process for the controversial Lake Powell Pipeline until they could reach a consensus on “legal and operational concerns” raised by the project. (The Nevada Independent, Arizona Daily Star, Comment Letter)
The diversion, backed by Utah water officials, would pipe large amounts of Colorado River from Lake Powell to the fast-growing area of southern Utah, which includes St. George. Opponents of the project question whether the costly project is even necessary, given high water use and the potential for conservation. Additionally, the proposed project would place more demand on a river system where supply is expected to decrease. Scientists have shown that climate change has already contributed to a loss in Colorado River flow, and it is projected to get worse.
But the letter from the six states seemed geared less toward stopping (or opposing) the project than it did at preventing litigation. For decades, the seven U.S. states that use the Colorado River have focused on keeping their issues out of court, instead working to resolve them through collaborative negotiations. The states are concerned the permitting process could lead to litigation that would upend that collaborative model.
The federal government could soon take title to 112 metric tons of mercury from Nevada gold mines: Nevada Gold Mines LLC, the state’s largest gold miner, reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Energy in a legal dispute over how to permanently remove and store mercury, a byproduct from gold mining. Last year, the company, along with Coeur Rochester, accused the agency of rushing its rulemaking process for storing mercury waste long-term (we wrote about the lawsuit in January).
Last week, the federal agency admitted errors in finalizing the rule for storing mercury and agreed to take title of 112 metric tons of mercury stored by Nevada Gold Mines, per the federal Mercury Export Ban Act. But the issue is far from settled. According to court records, Coeur Rochester’s separate litigation is ongoing. And the agency has to identify a permanent solution for storing mercury waste, as required by the congressional act. (Bloomberg Law, Court Filing)
Large-scale solar: Federal land managers released a final environmental review Friday of the Yellow Pine Solar Project outside of Las Vegas. The proposed 500-megawatt solar array, across about 3000 acres of public land, is the latest renewable energy project to be sited in the Mojave desert, a sensitive ecosystem home to the protected Mojave desert tortoise. The project raises continued concerns about the impact of development on tortoise habitat. (Associated Press)
The Bureau of Land Management, charged with overseeing federal public land, is proposing to mow vegetation, rather than remove it, to mitigate some of the impacts. But conservationists argue the “mowing” option would still degrade the ecosystem. About 93,930 Mojave yuccas sit in the area, and they are known to live hundreds of years. Laura Cunningham, a biologist and the co-founder of Basin and Range Watch, said it would be an “ecological tragedy” to lose them.
Federal land managers conducted an oil auction Tuesday: “A poet and entrepreneur with ties to Myanmar who previously bought the rights to develop geothermal energy in Washington state on Tuesday became the latest oil and gas speculator in Nevada.” (Bloomberg Law)