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One of the many distinctive characteristics of the Great Basin is that when the water comes, it often gets trapped. As precipitation falls onto the remote expanse from western Utah across Nevada, water evaporates, sinks into the ground, or it flows into wetlands and terminal saline lakes.
With few outlets, the water becomes trapped in places like Pyramid Lake, Walker Lake, the Great Salt Lake in Utah or Lake Abert in Oregon. Or it forms vast wetlands that cover hundreds of thousands of acres in places like the Lahontan Valley in Churchill County.
Each area has its own character — and its own challenges.
For the past century, as cities, farms and ranchers have diverted more and more water, lakes across the Great Basin have received less and less. The result is changes in water chemistry and an increase in salts and minerals that make it difficult for fish and other species to live. As we reported last year, climate change poses an additional threat.
Although each area is unique, they are hardly disconnected.
Many lakes and wetlands that pockmark the Great Basin, which includes most of Nevada, form part of the Pacific Flyway, a critical Western migration path for waterbirds. As a result, the threats to these lakes, taken together, could undermine critical habitat for annual migration and breeding.
Still, “many of these lakes don't really get a lot of attention,” Marcelle Shoop, who directs the Saline Lakes Program for the Audubon Society, said in an interview last month.
Shoop said attention — and a regional approach — is what these saline ecosystems need.
That could change with a bipartisan bill introduced last month by Democratic Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Republican Utah Sen. Mitt Romney aimed at boosting saline ecosystem research.
The congressional legislation would authorize the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct a regional assessment of saline ecosystems within the Great Basin. According to the legislation, the assessment would focus on studying several issues, including water quality, water demand, migratory birds and environmental changes, including climate change.
The bill would authorize $5 million in appropriations for five years.
Since the bill was introduced, Sen. Jacky Rosen has signed on as a co-sponsor. In a statement, Rosen said it “will establish a scientific foundation and ongoing monitoring system to inform coordinated management and conservation actions for threatened saline lakes ecosystems.”
“It's good to keep talking about these habitats,” Shoop said. “We are very concerned about losing them or losing key habitats and what that impact could be for migratory birds.”
Here’s what else I’m watching this week:
A landowner and a medical waste facility: Last week, we reported on a proposal to build a medical waste facility at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, home to the Tesla Gigafactory. But the company behind the project, Stericycle, has received large fines from state environmental regulators across the West. Its record is not sitting well with Blockchains, the industrial center’s largest landowner. Blockchains, which has described itself as a “software development and real estate development company,” is seeking to build a cryptocurrency-backed town at the park.
On Monday, Blockchains submitted a lengthy objection to the planning commission for Storey County, where the industrial park is located, noting that Stericycle has also faced a class-action lawsuit over wage violations and federal investigations. The commission is set to reconsider a permit for the facility on Thursday. Stericycle also submitted a letter to the board. The company touts significant leadership changes and also responds to several issues Blockchains raised.
Taxing mines: The Legislature passed three resolutions aimed at changing the way mining is taxed, my colleagues Riley Snyder, Michelle Rindels and Jacob Solis reported Sunday. In doing so, state legislators kicked off a process to amend the state Constitution, which limits taxes on the industry. But the measures must be approved again by the Legislature and then face the voters. This is not the first proposal to change the mining tax. Between the Legislature, the voters and an industry concentrated in rural Nevada, the politics here are interesting, as The Nevada Independent editor Jon Ralston wrote in this column — with some lessons from 1989.
- What does the mining industry think? Top mining executives discussed perceptions around the industry in Nevada Business Magazine. Regardless of where you might land on the mining tax debate, this Q&A is a very honest look into the industry’s thinking.
Crescent Dunes bankruptcy: The owner of the Crescent Dunes solar plant outside of Tonopah field for bankruptcy last week, the Pahrump Valley Times reports. The closure of the facility and the subsequent bankruptcy proceedings could leave U.S. taxpayers with a roughly $225 million bill, more than half of what the operator owed on a federal loan guarantee for the solar plant.
An alarming report: Ian James, writing for The Arizona Republic, reports that “in a new study, a team of researchers found that without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, extreme heat could become a major global killer by the end of this century, matching recent death rates for all infectious diseases combined, including tuberculosis, HIV and malaria.”
Battery storage: Switch, the data storage company, announced plans to build a nearly 24/7 battery-storage power source at its Tahoe Reno Industrial Center location, Julian Spector for Greentech Media, reports. From the article: “This marks one entry in a broader effort by Switch founder and CEO Rob Roy to meet his company’s energy needs with clean-energy investment in its home base of Nevada. But while plenty of tech companies have purchased clean energy to account for their power consumption, and some have required clean energy produced in the regions where it is consumed, none have produced it at their own facilities at this scale.”
‘I’m sure it will be listed:’ In July, state officials with the Division of Forestry heard testimony from scientists on whether a rare buckwheat, found only in Nevada and threatened by lithium mining, deserves heightened protection. That same week, federal officials announced that they too would evaluate threats to the Tiehm’s buckwheat and whether it deserved protection under the Endangered Species Act. Now, public records obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity and reported by the Associated Press, suggest that a consultant for the proposed lithium mine also believes the plant should be protected, a designation that could imperil the mining project. The emails also cast doubt on the mine consultant’s mitigation strategy for the rare buckwheat.
If you think Nevada is becoming California... it actually might be the other way around. A report from the World Resources Institute looked at the states that saw the most significant cuts in carbon emissions from 2005-2017. Nevada saw its emissions decrease by about 27 percent, the seventh largest cut in the country and certainly the largest cut in the West. Obviously, there are a lot of caveats to consider here. First, a percentage decrease in carbon emissions only means as much as your starting point. And second, much of that transition was likely from coal to natural gas. Nevada officials still have more work to do, and the cuts this time around are not likely to be as easy as they were before. As one researcher on the report told Grist, “once you take into account the low-hanging fruit, then there are another series of challenges.”
Fast-tracking a mine: The Associated Press’ Scott Sonner wrote that federal land managers are expediting permitting for what could become the country’s first mine for vanadium, which is often imported and considered a “critical mineral.” But the mine, which would be sited near the town of Eureka, would also extract 50,000 pounds of yellow cake uranium, raising concerns among environmentalists that the project could lead to contamination and harm biodiversity.
Update: This story was updated at 8:36 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 7 to correct the spelling of Lake Abert.