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The lower reach of the Virgin River. (Tanya Anderson/The Nature Conservancy)

In an effort to provide a more comprehensive report on water, land and development issues, this “beat sheet” will break down the news of the week with a peek into the future. Let me know whether you have any tips, suggestions, criticisms or story ideas at [email protected]. If you want to receive Indy Environment in your inbox, you can sign-up here. If you want to help our mission of providing nonprofit reader-supported journalism, please support us here. And if you’d like to place an ad in Indy Environment, please contact [email protected] for rates.

The Virgin River rises near Zion National Park.  

Dropping 7,800 feet over 160 miles, the steep tributary of the Colorado River carves a narrow path through Utah, Arizona and Nevada, where the river spills into Lake Mead. Along the way, irrigators use the Virgin River for agriculture, and the fast-growing cities of St. George, Utah and Mesquite, Nevada rely on the river for their municipal water supplies. But the river’s ecosystem is fragile and sensitive to environmental change, from diversions to yearly variations in precipitation.

Sometimes in the summer, flows trickle to such a low that parts of the riverbed run dry. In the small ponds where water remains, temperatures can hit 90 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a watershed plan from the Virgin River Coalition. These factors are among the stressors for the river’s six native fish — some endangered — that fight for space with non-native fish.

The competition is so slanted that native fish, including the endangered Virgin River chub and woundfin, made up only about 2.5 percent of all fish surveyed in 2016, according to the plan.

To that end, the coalition is unveiling its watershed plan for the first time in public at a meeting this morning at Mesquite City Hall. The plan — about two years in the making — is aimed at species recovery while balancing the interests of recreationists and cities. And it comes out of the relatively new Virgin River Coalition, a group that included The Nature Conservancy, recreationists, local officials, federal land managers and state wildlife biologists working in an area, close to the Bundy standoff, that is often wary of conservation.

The plan, which runs about 70 pages and focuses on the Nevada and Arizona portions of the river, outlines strategies to improve fish health and riparian habitat while creating more flexibility for diversions (to better manage flows) and building a watershed-wide recreational trail system.

At future workshops, the group plans to pinpoint more localized projects, such as the removal of the water-hungry tamarisk, trail improvement and tackling non-native species in the river. The plan’s recreation goals, which include an education component, also aims to connect more people with the river, boosting awareness of our relationship to the river and how we use it.

“We believe that a collaborative approach to management of the river and watershed is a better situation for people and nature,” said Rob Sutter, the coalition’s facilitator as an ecologist for Enduring Conservation Outcomes, a consultancy. “The greater appreciation people have of the natural resources and human use of them will allow them to make better decisions in the future.”

His takeaway: The effort offers a collaborative vision for managing a complicated river.

But that is not the only approach out there. Groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity and Utah Rivers Council have sued in Utah over endangered species. If the collaborative effort does not result in long-term species recovery, litigation always remains on the table.

The Nature Conservancy argues that the tools to fix the problem are already available. What has been left out is a social structure for dialogue, something they argue that the watershed plan will provide.

We’ll keep you posted on the Virgin River. Until then…

Deal or no deal: Remember the secret half-ton of plutonium the Department of Energy shipped to Nevada prior to November last year? From the courts to Congress, state officials have been working for months on ways to remove the plutonium from the Nevada National Security Site.

There was some news on Tuesday about that, but it’s not the all-out win you might have seen on Twitter. The Review-Journal was first to report that Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Rick Perry agreed to start moving the plutonium by 2021 and finish moving all the material by 2026. Perry’s letter to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto also included assurances that his agency would not ship another half-ton of plutonium from South Carolina. In exchange, Cortez Masto agreed to lift a hold on nominees to the department. She told the RJ it was a “victory.”

But the fighting is not over.

What is new (“the news”) is that the agency is now contemplating an earlier removal date. As we reported in February, the agency was on the record — the court record, to be specific — saying it would not move an additional half-ton of plutonium to Nevada. But so much mistrust was in the air that state officials didn’t believe them. What’s changed? Starting the removal process is 2021 is the big deal. But it’s worth noting the DOE told then-Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office last year that it already expected to remove the plutonium by about 2026 to 2027.

Having a cabinet secretary say these things in writing could be helpful in the future and perhaps there’s also value in defusing the public sniping between the state and federal agency. Cortez Masto’s office is arguing that there is value in having the promise in the public’s eye. They are also aware more can be done to hold DOE accountable to its word, which state officials view skeptically.

In fact, the state has been pushing for more accountability since last year. Sandoval’s office sent a letter (now part of the court record) last year that listed accountability measures the governor’s office had hoped the DOE would take. One was to provide “routine updates” on the removal timeline for the plutonium. Could future assurances preclude other shipments of plutonium? In the coming years, the DOE will have to ship another five tons of plutonium from South Carolina. Where’s that going to go? Is it possible that it could be coming to Nevada?

And that is why the state is continuing its legal fight.

A spokesperson for Attorney General Aaron Ford, wrote in an email Wednesday that Perry’s “agreement marks a promising step in our efforts to protect Nevadans from nuclear materials.”

The statement went on to say that the state would “continue to pursue our aggressive litigation strategy which seeks to permanently ensure this shipment of plutonium is timely and safely removed, and prevent future shipments from reaching our borders.”

Of course, Yucca Mountain is casting its shadow on all of this. As is an election. As the Nevada Current notes, six senators running for president are sponsoring a Nevada-pushed Yucca bill. Another interesting note: My colleague Humberto Sanchez reported today that Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso, who chairs the Senate's Energy and Public Works Committee, used climate change — and the need for nuclear — as an argument for Yucca.

The law of the lake: Last week, Walker Basin Conservancy alleged that a federal official was blocking the flow of water to restore habitat at the shrinking lake. The group, which manages federal funds for a market-based restoration program, asked a federal district court judge to force the official to deliver water to the lake. “At some point, the court must put a stop to the federal water master’s obstruction.” For more information, you can read our full story here.

Clips from the news:

  • Equinox Gold Corp. is looking to reopen a gold mine in Castle Mountains National Monument near Searchlight, and federal land managers are taking comments. (RJ)
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren took a big swipe at the General Mining Law of 1872. Clearly, Warren Never Met Harry Reid while they served in Congress. (Nevada Current)
  • One of the trickiest water issues: What to do with the water trapped in Lemmon Valley. Washoe County and City of Reno hosted a joint meeting on it this week (RGJ)
  • I’ve thought about this topic a lot, and I’m glad the RGJ did a big feature on it: The fire threat in Tahoe and what new developments mean for it. (RGJ/USA Today)
  • The Nevada Department of Wildlife completed a chemical treatment to remove invasive blue tilapia on the Muddy River (also a tributary of the Colorado River). (RJ)

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story referred to "a watershed plan from The Nature Conservancy." The story was corrected on May 2, 2019 at 1:30 p.m. to indicate that the watershed plan is being unveiled by the Virgin River Coalition, a group that included the Nature Conservancy. 

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