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A firefighter responds to the Owyhee Fire on July 21, 2018. (Naaman Horn/BLM Nevada)

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. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any suggestions or tips at [email protected]. Message me to talk on Signal or PGP.

Weighing fire risk: On Friday, the National Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise, published its summer fire outlook. It found above-normal potential for large-scale fires in southeastern Nevada in June and in western Nevada in July. The report comes as fire managers are closely monitoring conditions to assess strategies for fighting fire during the pandemic. 

“Northern California and the Great Basin area are also areas to monitor closely for Above Normal significant wildland fire potential as fuels continue to dry and cure,” the report said. “Additionally, fine fuel loading is expected to be above average for the third consecutive year in the lower elevations. Those fuels will dry and cure, becoming receptive to fire by mid-June.” 

According to the Drought Monitor, about 42 percent of the state is experiencing moderate drought conditions, with a small pocket of severe drought in Lander County, western White Pine County and southern Elko County. It is a significant increase from April 30 last year, when the entire state was reported drought free.

Reno gets a Brownfields grant: The EPA announced a $600,000 grant for the city of Reno to assess contamination in a vacant corridor that used to be part of the railroad and runs alongside the Truckee River corridor. The grant still must be accepted by the City Council next week. 

The announcement on Wednesday was part of a broader agency effort to disburse $65.6 million in grants for 151 communities across the country. Reno joins several other jurisdictions across Nevada that have received funding to conduct contamination assessments — and eventual cleanups — under the national Brownfields program. A brownfield site, as defined by the EPA, is “a property for which the site’s expansion, redevelopment, or reuse may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”

The urban area in Reno, targeted for redevelopment, includes a mix of public and private land. On a conference call announcing the grant, Reno Vice Mayor Devon Reese said the award could help spur re-development in the area, bringing economic and environmental benefits.

“Like many communities around the country, our economy has certainly been very hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Reese said. “And these much-needed funds do come at an opportune time to help us continue to revitalize our downtown and our urban core, which [has been] an important initiative for the city of Reno in recent years”

Delayed compensation: High Country News published a story this week investigating the bureaucratic roadblocks facing Indigenous downwinder communities that file claims with the federal government, responsible for above-ground nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site. 

Under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, downwinders who were exposed to nuclear testing and contracted radiation-related diseases are eligible for a one-time payment. But the program sunsets in July 2022, even as the lasting effects of radiation could continue causing diseases in a generation that is growing older. As the article documents, Indigenous downwinders have faced challenging barriers in getting their claims processed.

‘The new normal is abnormal:’ Former Desert Research Institute President Kristen Averyt will serve as the state’s first climate policy coordinator. Averyt, who has a background in Colorado River research and was one of the scientists who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, spoke to The Nevada Current this week. This line is good. “People talk about a ‘new normal,’” she said. “The new normal is abnormal.”

New utility ratemaking: The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada released a concept paper last week outlining the process for exploring new ratemaking structure for electric utilities. 

The Mountain Pass mine: The Pentagon is investing in a processing facility for the country’s only rare-earth minerals operation. Even if you haven’t heard of the mine, you’ve probably passed it. It’s tucked away off of I-15 in California, about 15 minutes from the Nevada border and about an hour from Las Vegas. Right now, processing the minerals (used in wind turbines, electric cars and military weapons) is done in China. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon is helping fund an on-site processing facility to reduce that dependence. 

A groundwater market on hold: A District Court judge ruled last week that a novel program to conserve groundwater violated a basic principle of Nevada water law. The program, now in its second year, looked to create a more fluid market for buying, selling and trading water rights in Diamond Valley, a basin outside of Eureka County. At the same time, it looked to reduce overall pumping from a water supply that regulators had, over many years, allowed to be pumped at rates that were unsustainable. 

The program continues to be closely watched not only in Nevada but across the arid West. It is seen as a possible model for fixing a common regional problem of overallocation, when there are more rights to water on paper than there is water to go around. The state, county and/or a group of irrigators, all parties to the case, could appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

Watching the well: Dozens of Fernley residents checked into Zoom last week for a meeting to discuss a federal project that could result in a reduction of local groundwater, the Mason Valley News reports. For years, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and other Truckee River water users have been providing input on ways to maintain the largely unlined Truckee Canal after a breach in the diversion flooded hundreds of homes in 2008. 

But the proposed fix — to line the canal — is complex and controversial. Although the project could increase the canal’s efficiency in a basin with little water to spare, it will leave Fernley with less water. Because the canal is unlined as it passes through Fernley, water flowing through the canal seeps into the groundwater, forming a portion of the domestic water supply.

Grazing sheep to reduce fire-risk: Federal land managers announced plans to release about 800 ewes in the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest in the foothills near Reno. By grazing sheep, the U.S. Forest Service is hoping to reduce invasive vegetation, including cheatgrass, a fuel that frequently exacerbates the severity of wildfires throughout the Intermountain West. Dogs and herders will monitor the sheep, according to a press release. Because the area is a popular hiking spot, a fuels specialist with the agency is urging hikers to keep their dogs on leashes: “No matter how well trained a dog is, their instinct to chase could put them and the sheep in danger.”

Coronavirus at the lake: The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is eyeing a phased approach to boating in 2020: limiting boating, in the first phase, to boats that only launch from Lake Tahoe. The agency issues different decals, as part of its aquatic invasive species program, depending on whether boats launch solely from Lake Tahoe or travel in and out of the basin. 

Former Clark County commissioner on pipeline: Former Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who ran in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, wrote an op-ed in the Las Vegas Sun on the Las Vegas pipeline. Giunchigliani, a board member of the Great Basin Water Network, wrote that “the project is an outdated, costly vision dreamed up at a time before terms like climate change and urban sprawl were in the lingua franca of Las Vegas residents.”

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