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Solar panels seen at the Copper Mountain Solar 3 facility near Boulder City on Monday, April 22, 2019. (Jeff Scheid-Nevada Independent)

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter. 

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here. As always, we want to hear from readers. Email me with tips at [email protected]. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground.

First, a few numbers:

6.5. That’s the magnitude of the tremor that struck the Tonopah area Friday morning, making it the largest quake to hit the state since 1954. And less than one week later, a 5.0 aftershock hit the area on Wednesday morning with reports of individuals feeling the earthquake hundreds of miles away in Carson City and northern California, the Reno Gazette Journal reports.  

2,772: The number of Nevada jobs a solar industry trade group believes will be lost through June because of COVID-19. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, that represents a 21 percent drop compared to the association’s solar job projections from before the pandemic. 

Here’s what else I’m watching:

Federal land managers signed off on a $1 billion Southern Nevada solar project on May 11. The administrative decision ends a permitting effort that drew challenges from environmental advocates for its potential effects on the Mojave desert tortoise and the overall ecosystem. 

Once completed, the project would be the largest solar array in the United States and the eighth-largest in the world, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said in a news release. 

The permitting process split environmental groups. Although the 690-megawatt project would advance renewable energy targets, other conservation-centered groups were worried about the near-term impacts on the desert tortoise, a species that many scientists say is already facing a death by one thousand cuts. The project will be sited outside of a designated solar energy zone, areas of federal public land where the BLM has identified as appropriate for solar development. 

The tension is one that has existed for years in the Mojave desert, a big target for solar. 

In the approval, land managers and developers believe they might have found a way to lessen the environmental impact. To mitigate the impact on the desert tortoise, the recently approved project, known as Gemini Solar, has proposed a new type of grading method to preserve about 65 percent of the vegetation with the hope that tortoises could eventually reoccupy the site. This would involve mowing certain sections of the site, instead of completely removing vegetation.

But as one U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee told Bloomberg, it’s “a big experiment.”

  • Related: “The Trump administration has ended a two-year rent holiday for solar and wind projects operating on federal lands, handing them whopping retroactive bills at a time the industry is struggling with the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak,” via Reuters. 

A big Anaconda report: State environmental regulators approved a groundwater study finding that the former Anaconda Copper Mine was responsible for a much smaller amount of uranium pollution than was previously modeled in 2017. The study commissioned by Atlantic Richfield, the responsible party for the former Anaconda Copper Mine, has big implications for the future of the cleanup effort. It finds that agricultural practices and natural-occurring deposits were responsible for elevated uranium levels found in some wells in the area near the mine. This is an important study that will be used as a baseline for coming up with a pollution remedy. I will be writing more about this and what it means. In the meantime, here’s some background.

The water authority board weighs in: The Southern Nevada Water Authority board is meeting today. A diligent reader of this newsletter pointed out that there’s a pipeline item on tomorrow’s docket. The agenda description reads: “That the Board of Directors receive an update from staff on the Groundwater Project and direct staff accordingly.” I’ll be tuning into this board meeting.

Turning 84 this week: On May 20, 1936, President Roosevelt established what at the time was known as the “Desert Game Range.” Today the area is known as the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, and it turned 84 this week. It is the largest refuge in the contiguous United States with a mix of landscapes, from sand dunes to mountain ranges. A big part of Roosevelt’s action was to preserve habitat for the desert bighorn sheep. Today the refuge continues to face threats from a proposal to expand by the U.S. Air Force to expand the Nevada Test and Training Range. 

Tiehm’s buckwheat: Ten groups sent a letter to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources on Wednesday urging it to continue evaluating Tiehm’s buckwheat for protection as a threatened species. The endemic buckwheat faces a threat from the development of a proposed lithium mine near Tonopah, as we reported last year. Environmentalists are asking the state to move quickly toward a decision before the mine is fully permitted, a process that is ongoing. Workshops to discuss the buckwheat were postponed in March due to COVID-19.

New trenches: E&E News reports the Bureau of Land Management is investigating whether Nevada rancher Ryan Bundy illegally built new irrigation infrastructure across Gold Butte National Monument, the same area where his family unlawfully grazes cattle on public lands.” 

A remembrance: I was sad to learn a few weeks ago that John Freemuth, a professor at Boise State, had passed away. John was a generous and helpful source in covering all things related to public land in the West, from Bundy's to the Greater sage grouse. What I enjoyed most about talking to John was the way he combined the cultural, historical and legal aspects of an issue to look at things from a 30,000 foot point-of-view — in almost a journalistic way — and offer insight into what it meant. The Idaho Statesman published a beautiful tribute: “He was a myth buster.”

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