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Indy Environment: Clark County public lands bill, the climate change race and a mine permit

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg

The Indy Environment newsletter breaks down reporting on water, public land and development. Sign-up here to receive it in your inbox. For suggestions or tips, email [email protected]

Clark County is moving forward with its push for congressional legislation to reclassify sections of the federal public land — mostly controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — that encircles Las Vegas. In general, the proposed bill looks to expand the area in which Las Vegas can grow (mainly down the I-15 corridor) while designating more conservation land to offset impacts on endangered species, primarily the Mojave desert tortoise. 

According to documents provided by the county, conservation groups had concerns that earlier versions of the bill contained sections that could undermine the Endangered Species Act and the environmental review process. The county has since offered revised legislation making it clear that its staff will still go through a typical Endangered Species Act process for protecting the desert tortoise. The county also noted that similar language was used in a prior bill. 

Yet concerns remain that the bill includes loopholes. Specifically, the legislation would designate about 300,000 acres of Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) to preserve land for the desert tortoise. Patrick Donnelly, the state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said that the designations — usually determined in the BLM's regional planning process — could effectively pre-determine appropriate conservation for the desert tortoise before doing an exhaustive environmental review. He wrote in an email that his group “continues its vociferous opposition” to the current draft.

“They’re putting the cart before the horse – make a decision first, analyze second,” he said.

Conservation groups had argued that the draft bill, which proposes about 82,000 acres of wilderness, should protect more land as wilderness, noting that a bill in 2002 designated over 750,000 acres. The county did not add acreage in the revised bill, but it left open the possibility that Congress could. 

Jose Witt, Southern Nevada Director for the Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said in an email Wednesday that at first glance, the draft "still lacks enough durable conservation."

These things take time and a bit of back and forth, which is expected,” he said. “We look forward to continue working with our partners at the county to ensure that we end up with a balanced bill that’s good for Clark County residents, its public lands and wildlife.” 

It’s unclear how the legislation will move through Congress. Members of the delegation have discussed possibly moving the Clark County bill at the same time as related pending legislation. Last year, Washoe County was also actively working on a lands bill. And both the Fallon Naval Air Station and the Nevada Test and Training Range are looking for congressional approval to expand their footprints. Speaking to the Las Vegas Sun, Sen. Jacky Rosen discussed the idea of creating one Nevada lands bill. Rep. Mark Amodei, in a recent interview, said that he saw “momentum” for moving separate Southern and Northern Nevada bills at the same time as the military bills.

Here are other stories I’m following:

The climate change caucus: When California Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign contacts voters in Nevada, the top issue it hears about is health care. After that, the second most pressing issue the campaign hears about is climate change and the environment, according to the campaign. The fact that climate change registers this high on voters minds — even if anecdotally — is significant. It's a sign that many voters and businesses are paying attention to climate change in their decision-making, even as the White House turns away from addressing climate change. Politicians and political groups are responding.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a vocal advocate of addressing climate change, might be off the debate stage, but the League of Conservation Voters has launched a $150,000 digital ad buy in Nevada and New Hampshire. The campaign’s goal is to keep climate change on voters’ minds (I’ve already received an ad on Instagram -- the one featuring Lake Mead). 

“The most important hearing:" Last week, the State Environmental Commission unanimously upheld a water quality control permit for General Moly’s bid to extract molybdenum near Eureka. But in reviewing the Mt. Hope Mine, the commission expressed concerns, asking state regulators to review a pollution model and how it evaluates contamination pathways at pit lakes, the Reno Gazette Journal reported. The commission's chairman called the meeting "the most important hearing we have heard in a long time."

The Great Basin Resource Watch objected to the company’s modeling of the water quality in the pit lake and argued acidic discharges from mine waste could affect water quality for hundreds of years. According to the group, the mine would leave one of the largest open pits in the nation. The mine watchdog has long challenged the project, successfully forcing a federal land management agency to reconsider an environmental impact statement after a 9th Circuit decision in 2016. The Review-Journal reported that an environmental scientist for the state argued that groundwater was not at risk because water could not flow out of the pit lake, which is below the groundwater table.

Water tax: The Clark County Commission approved an extension of a quarter-cent tax for water projects in Southern Nevada. As the Las Vegas Sun reported, the 6-1 vote took out a clause sunsetting the roughly $100 million revenue source. The dissenting vote came from Commissioner Tick Segerblom, who argued the tax was regressive and subsidizes rates. The Southern Nevada Water Authority said the sales tax has been used across the valley to help pay for the Lake Mead intakes, treatment facilities and pumping stations.

New DRI President: The Nevada System of Higher Education named acting Desert Research Institute President Kumud Acharya the organization’s president for the next two years. “Science is more important than ever as Nevada and our planet faces growing environmental challenges, and I look forward to what the future holds at DRI,” Archarya said in a statement last week. 

Land, Water, Funding: The Department of Interior announced that Nevada will receive about $2.3 million in grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LCWF) for improvements on public land. The program, funded through offshore oil and gas leasing, has found itself at the center of a political debate during the Trump administration, which axed LWCF funding in its budget.

A Mojave bee in Clark County: The Mojave poppy bee is inching closer to a listing under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week. The bee pollinates two rare poppies native to the desert for which the bee takes its name. Without it, those plants could go extinct, too. Like so many imperiled species, the bee faces multiple threats. They include recreation, gypsum mining, grazing and the encroachment of non-native honeybees. Once found at 34 sites across four states, its range has already shrunk significantly and is confined to seven sites in Clark County.

The downward solarcoaster: The Levelized Cost of Electricity is a technical term. But it is an important measure of the cost to build new power generation. It is a useful metric, despite some flaws, to compare and contrast the cost of producing power from different sources (solar, wind, natural gas, etc.) over the life of an operation. A new tool from the Natural Resources Defense Council, pulling data from Lazard and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, breaks down the data by state. It’s a useful backdrop for conversations about renewables and an explanation for why many companies are embracing them. Surprise: In Nevada, solar is forecast to win out.

Clips from the news

  • ‘A place where we never go outside.’ A sobering look at what climate change looks like, starting with an investigator from the Clark County coroner's office. (The Guardian)
  • Another reason Nevada does not get the attention it deserves (Nevada Current)
  • Will Tahoe’s invasive shrimp become a mass-market supplement? (LA Times
  • Forum addresses ecological, tribal opposition to Yucca Mountain (Las Vegas Sun)
  • Nevada Copper ready for production at Yerington mine (Nevada Appeal)
  • Public lands law opens access, criminalizes locked gates (KUNR)

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