Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.
Two plans to expand military bases in Nevada are in question after they were excluded from a Senate committee report on defense budgeting. The Senate approved funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. And utility regulators approved a settlement deal broadening NV Energy incentives for electric vehicles. That and more in this week’s edition of the newsletter.
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Controversial military base expansions excluded from defense authorization report: A Senate committee last week did not include language about expanding two military bases in a report outlining the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The decision came as a surprise to tribes, environmentalists and wildlife advocates long concerned that the controversial expansions would close off access to public land, harm ecosystems and degrade cultural sites.
In Southern Nevada, the Air Force proposed growing the Nevada Test and Training Range by withdrawing nearly 300,000 acres of land from the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the contiguous United States and dedicated to preserving desert bighorn sheep.
Similarly, a Navy proposal in Northern Nevada looked to expand the Fallon Naval Air Station on about 600,000 acres of federal public land, interfering with wilderness, public access, grazing rights, mining claims and cultural sites that are sacred to the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe and the Walker River Paiute. The National Congress of American Indians opposed the proposal.
The Air Force and Navy argued that they needed more land to train for modern warfare, where munitions are dropped from higher altitudes and from farther away. Both military branches spent years studying the environmental and cultural impacts of the proposal, with possible mitigation.
The summary report on the defense authorization legislation does not include either expansion. Amber Torres, chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, said that was a “huge victory.”
“We can breathe a little sigh of relief for the time being,” Torres said. “I think it will probably be proposed or come up at a later time. But at least for right now, we've seen a huge victory."
But the summary report is not the final word. The bill language is pending, there is a House of Representatives version coming, and amendments commonly arise during defense budgeting.
On Friday, a spokesperson for Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto said she “celebrates the language she helped craft” that “secures a status-quo extension of the Nevada Test and Training Range.”
But the statement does not mention the expansion of the Northern Nevada Navy base.
In an email Wednesday, a spokesperson from the Fallon Naval Air Station said the proposal aimed to “minimize impacts” from the expansion. The statement said “the Navy is committed to working with Congress to ensure our sailors and marines get the training they need.”
Three takeaways from a decision on groundwater in southern Nevada: On Monday, Nevada’s top water regulator, the state engineer, released an order on the limits of groundwater pumping in a large area northeast of Las Vegas, where Coyote Springs and others have existing water rights.
The decision — more than 60 pages — is complicated and arises from more than a decade of groundwater testing and legal wrangling over how much water is available in the area without harming an endangered fish (the Moapa dace) and the Muddy River (the desert river contributes to Las Vegas’ water supply in Lake Mead and its flows are sensitive to groundwater pumping).
My point here: There is much more to the order than what it means for Coyote Springs, the master-planned development about 55 miles outside of Las Vegas that wants to build homes.
- The order does not restrict current pumping: The order declares a maximum limit on groundwater pumping in a broad area, but it stops short of curbing current groundwater pumping. As a practical matter, deciding how to reduce usage could prove complicated. For one, pumping from different areas affects Moapa dace habitat and the Muddy River in different ways. Two, many water users with rights least likely to be cutoff are not using their water, while water users with the rights most likely to be cutoff, are pumping. Three, the state has considered designing a management plan that would take time to develop.
- Bolstering the Endangered Species Act: Notably, the order recognizes the legal role that state agencies have in ensuring their decisions adhere to the Endangered Species Act. The Moapa dace is protected as an endangered species. An entire section of the order is dedicated to a discussion around the state in relation to the act. Citing judicial decisions from other states, it concludes that the state could be legally liable if it were to take an action that harmed the habitat of an endangered species like the Moapa dace.
- It’s not just about Coyote Springs: This proceeding is not only about Coyote Springs. It grabs a lot of headlines, and for good reason. But a number of other varied interests are affected by the outcome. That includes the Moapa Valley Water District, which has expressed concerns in the past about how their groundwater supply could be affected.
Utilities commission approves changes to electric vehicle incentives: The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada approved a settlement last week involving NV Energy, environmental groups, Tesla, Chargepoint and the Governor’s Office of Energy. In a press release, Western Resource Advocates, part of the settlement agreement, said the deal creates a new incentive program for low-income multi-unit dwellings and charging stations at government buildings. It also broadens the incentive program to include a variety of electric vehicle charger models.
Cameron Dyer, a staff attorney in Nevada for Western Resource Advocates, said that the agreement will “ultimately will help increase the number of clean, zero-emissions vehicles on our roads and curb the harmful fossil-fuel pollution that contributes to climate change.”
Senate approves permanent funding for conservation fund: In a 73 to 25 bipartisan vote on Wednesday, the Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The move was met with praise from environmental groups within the state and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen were both original co-sponsors of the legislation.
Funded through offshore fossil fuel royalties, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, known as LWCF, has never been fully funded since it was created in 1964. Congress often diverts the funds to non-conservation activities. The Senate vote permanently funds LWCF at a level of $900 million. Past revenues from LCWF have helped boost funding for parks and trails.
Conservation groups plan to sue over the bi-state sage grouse: Four conservation groups filed a notice on Wednesday stating their intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after the agency declined to list the bi-state sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
The bi-state sage grouse, which roams western Nevada and eastern California, are a distinct population from the Greater sage grouse, an iconic bird and an indicator species for the health of sagebrush ecosystems. Similar to a decision in 2015, the agency declined to list the bird as threatened earlier this year, noting that voluntary conservation measures were progressing.
But some environmental advocates do not think those measures go far enough, as populations continue to face threats from habitat conversion, grazing, fires and drought across their range.
In a press release, the groups said the population of bi-state grouse, estimated at 3,305, falls well below 5,000 birds, the threshold for a viable population. The groups include the Center for Biological Diversity, Desert Survivors, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians.
State OKs first developer-rancher transaction for sage-grouse credits: Earlier this month, the state announced the first transaction between a private developer and a private landowner of mitigation credits to offset the impacts of development on the Greater sage grouse. Despite federal decisions undoing requirements for companies to pay to offset the impacts of developing on public land, Nevada has continued to require it when it comes to the Greater sage grouse.
To do so, it has set up a market-based system, whereby developers (mining companies, energy developers, etc…) can pay ranchers and farmers to preserve land as sage grouse habitat. I’ll be writing more about that transaction and the mitigation credit system in the coming weeks.