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A map displays a proposal for the expansion of Naval Air Station Fallon during a public meeting Jan. 28, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

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Last week, the Trump administration finalized a rule eliminating Clean Water Act protections for about 85 percent of the mapped streams in Nevada, the latest turn in a long-running legal and political battle over the scope of the federal government’s jurisdiction to regulate water quality. 

The Trump administration’s regulation, with the backing of industry, removed an Obama-era rule that applied the Clean Water Act to wetlands and seasonal streams that flow only in response to rain or snowfall. These ephemeral streams comprise the vast majority of waterways in Nevada

In some cases, they contribute to larger waterways downstream, raising a pollution concern. As a result, conservationists and environmental groups have raised concerns about the rollback.

Homebuilders, agricultural groups and mining companies pushed back on the Obama-era rule, citing it as an example of federal overreach. In 2015, then-Gov. Brian Sandoval and Attorney General Adam Laxalt, both Republicans, sued over the regulation, blocking its implementation.

State environmental regulators said the state’s rules already protect against water pollution. 

The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) has argued that expanding federal water pollution rules would duplicate its existing regulations, which includes all bodies of water (the Las Vegas Sun recently published an interview with a deputy administrator on this issue).

Under Democratic leadership, Nevada has largely stayed the course charted by Sandoval.

Nevada remained in the litigation challenging the Obama-era regulation as other states, such as New Mexico and Colorado, withdrew from the lawsuit after the 2018 election. Like Nevada, both states are now led by Democratic governors and attorneys general. In April 2019, a letter from three state agencies said a draft of Trump’s proposal was “a considerable improvement.”

On Friday, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto tweeted that “the new #WOTUS rule is bad news, plain & simple,” noting that it removes federal clean water protections for most of Nevada’s streams. 

When asked whether Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak had a position on the new rule, a spokesman referred The Nevada Independent to a tweet Sisolak sent on Monday. The tweet, a retweet of Cortez Masto’s tweet, said NDEP “is evaluating the full impact of the Administration’s rollback in Clean Water Act protections to determine what actions may be necessary to protect NV waters.”

As interesting as it will be to watch whether the state believes new actions are needed, it will be just as interesting to watch who takes them. The executive branch? The Legislature? This is an issue that Arizona is grappling with. Although Arizona supported Trump’s scaled back WOTUS rule, state regulators are looking at ways to address a “gap in protection,” E&E News reports. 

Here’s what else I’m watching:

The Navy expansion: Earlier this month, the military released a final proposal to expand Naval Air Station Fallon. The proposal is a sweeping request so significant that it would affect private and public land in four counties. For about an hour-and-a-half Tuesday night, the public had an opportunity to once again weigh in on the plan during an open house in Fallon. 

Speakers voiced numerous concerns about the plan. Debates about how federal public land (about 85 percent of the state) often pit various groups against one another. Yet in this case, there are many tribal members, ranchers, exploration geologists and conservationists all on the same page — albeit for different reasons. The military’s plan would encroach on land that is sacred to tribes. The land is used for grazing. The land has mining claims on it. The land supports recreation. The land supports wildlife. The military wants to compensate ranchers and water rights holders if their land is withdrawn. But what is just compensation? 

This issue is not new. We wrote about some of the opposition and concerns in 2018, and I’m working on a feature looking at what’s ahead. The military’s proposal, as presented on Tuesday, included some new changes, increasing public access in certain areas, allowing for a bighorn sheep hunt and pledging to complete a study on the impacts to the Greater sage grouse. But many of the people who gave public comment were no longer just talking to the Navy. They were talking to the congressional delegation too. Congress will ultimately be responsible for approving the Navy’s request, and the delegation could make changes to the current proposal. 

Washoe County wants a federal lands bill: And there is a website. 

Geothermal sees an opportunity: As Western states, particularly California, set 100 percent clean energy targets, policymakers are looking for options that extend beyond solar and wind — intermittent energy sources unless they are coupled with storage technology. In that, geothermal companies see an opportunity. Former Public Utilities Commission Chair Paul Thomsen, now an Ormat executive, was quoted last week in an L.A. Times story saying: “Every state that wants to see deep renewables penetration is going to need a resource that can be there 24 hours a day with no carbon. And that’s going to create a continued growing market for geothermal.”

This is important: “The clock winds down on the West’s nuclear downwinders,” via KUNR.

Thacker Pass lithium project moves forward: “U.S. regulators have moved a step closer toward approving Lithium Americas Corp’s Nevada mine for the white metal, launching a review process that could result in final permits to build by 2021,” Reuters reported last week.

Land and Water Conservation $$$: Last year, Congress permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, known as LWCF. Conservationists are now pushing Congress to go one step further. Every year, revenues for the fund, which accumulate through oil and gas royalties, go toward non-conservation activities to fill out the budget. Environment Nevada, with the Frontier Group, released a report this week outlining how LWCF funds have been used across Nevada. The report recommends that Congress fully fund LWCF: “The next step is to ensure the passage of legislation guaranteeing permanent and dedicated funding for the program, making the full $900 million available each year without it having to be appropriated.”

Clips from the news:

  • Horsford breaks from party, votes against mining royalty bill (Nevada Current)
  • Sprawl, climate combine to hit disadvantaged communities hardest (Nevada Current)
  • Environmental roundtable draws criticism of county lands bill (KNPR)
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