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Natural Resources acting director on collaboration, drought, smart-from-the-start planning

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
Environment
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With hundreds of full-time employees, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is one of the state’s largest agencies, responsible for a wide array of activities, from overseeing state parks and wildland fire crews to regulating industrial pollution and managing water rights.

Earlier this month, the agency got a new leader. Gov. Steve Sisolak appointed Jim Lawrence, who has worked at the agency since 1998, to serve as the acting director. The move followed the departure of Brad Crowell, who was picked to serve on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency. 

The leadership change comes at a time when the state — and the region — face a number of ongoing interconnected environmental issues, including a prolonged drought that has strained water supplies, pressures on public land, increasingly risky wildfire behavior and extreme heat.

Last week, we spoke to Lawrence about his priorities and the challenges confronting an agency that has to balance a number of legislative mandates within limited resources and tight budgets. 

In an interview, Lawrence emphasized a need for collaboration, both with outside groups and across state government. He noted, for instance, the intersection between transportation and land management in ensuring that recreation areas are used in ways that minimize impacts. 

“Even though transportation isn’t within [the agency], when I think about recreation and the movements of people, how do you do that sustainably so we’re not enjoying the outdoors but increasing our greenhouse gas emissions? And how do you do that in a way to ensure that you have equal access?,” asked Lawrence, who has served on the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency governing board, which often weighs issues related to transportation and recreation.

The federal government manages about 85 percent of all the land within Nevada. Although the U.S. Bureau of Land Management oversees most of that land, several federal agencies are also involved with public land. These agencies include the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Defense, which manages testing ranges. This can make the state’s ability to intervene with public land issues somewhat limited.

At the same time, the state’s natural resource agency is actively involved in a number of public lands issues through environmental permitting, decisions about water rights and a responsibility to protect habitat for critical species. Over the past several decades, public lands have faced a number of increasing pressures ranging from development for mining and energy, large-scale wildfires and drought — worsened by a changing climate — and a greater recreation footprint.

Elected officials have worked to position the state as a hub for the global energy transition. Nevada is rich in sunlight to power solar panels, untapped geothermal steam to produce a 24/7 energy resource and lithium deposits to fuel the batteries needed in electric cars. But solar arrays, geothermal plants and lithium mines are often placed on public land — often in places that conflict with cultural sites and land set aside for habitat conservation.

Some conservation groups and policymakers have pushed for “smart-from-the-start” planning, a comprehensive effort to direct and incentivize development on lands that previously have been developed, such as brownfields and old mines, or in areas where there are fewer conflicts. Last year, the State Land Use Planning Advisory Council released a letter endorsing this approach.

Lawrence, who has a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, said he generally backs that approach. He said he is “sensitive to statewide planning efforts if it steps on the toes of local government and gets in the way of what they need to do.” But he said “having a comprehensive look regarding mineral development, transmission lines and how we can best utilize and protect our public lands, given the multiple pressures on it, requires statewide coordination.”

That said, he noted that there are rarely easy answers, even with a comprehensive plan in place. At the end of the day, he said “there still has to be uncomfortable discussions.”

Lawrence said the state can also play an important role in water planning. The most recent U.S. Drought Monitor map reports that about 75 percent of Nevada is experiencing drought. Although the state regulates water rights, water governance is dispersed in most watersheds and groundwater basins, with many different officials making decisions. Still, he said the state could work to provide updated data on water availability.

“You need the best, most-recent scientific data in order to make the best management decisions within the confines of the law,” Lawrence said last week. “And I think some of our hydrologic data is about outdated at this point in time. I think that is something that is a high priority as water is going to continue to be more and more of an issue.”

Lawrence said he also plans to focus on staffing and retention. Currently, the agency employs about 780 people in permanent positions and an additional 217 people as seasonal employees. But like many agencies, Lawrence said some divisions in the agency have not fully recovered to the staffing levels they had before the Great Recession.

Of all the issues facing the agency and natural resource management, Lawrence identified a structural problem as one of the most pressing: communication and collaboration. Just as ecosystems are intertwined and interconnected, Lawrence argued that so too should be the state’s approach to natural resource management, one that considers a wide range of voices. 

“It has to be all hands on deck because these are very complicated issues we’re working on,” he argued. “And those are going to be the most sustaining solutions — when you have everybody working across jurisdictional lines. That is the biggest challenge I think about on a daily basis.”


Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the Clark County Commission approved a 600 square-foot size restriction on new pools, a measure meant to save water and reduce per capita water use. It’s one of the latest efforts by the Las Vegas Valley Water District to conserve Colorado River water as water managers across the West look for ways to reduce their use of the river. The quote that stood out to me was this one from the water district’s top manager, John Entsminger: “Nobody questions building codes to survive hurricanes in South Florida. Nobody questions building codes for earthquakes in San Francisco. Water scarcity is our natural disaster in Southern Nevada.” More on the new rules from the Las Vegas Review Journal’s Colton Poore.

  • “The Southwest's thirst for the drying river is pushing a challenged aquatic environment further out of whack,” writes the Arizona Republic’s Brandon Loomis, who is reporting on the threat that nonnative fish species pose to threatened fish in the Grand Canyon.

Lithium Americas, the company developing the Thacker Pass mine in Humboldt County, opened a 30,000 square-foot technology facility in Reno Wednesday. The facility is aimed at helping the company refine its process for turning ore into lithium carbonate, a product used within the batteries needed for electric vehicles. Gov. Steve Sisolak, UNR President Brian Sandoval and a representative from Rep. Mark Amodei’s office spoke. A council member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, Arlo Crutcher, also attended the event with members of his family.

  • Several conservation groups and the Reno Sparks Indian Colony have challenged the federal permit for the mine, arguing that an environmental analysis was rushed and did not fully consider the project’s impact on imperiled wildlife and cultural sites. The lawsuit is ongoing. A federal judge is expected to rule on the merits of the case later this year. 
  • The People of Red Mountain, a coalition of Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribal members who are opposed to the mine, held an event on Saturday in Reno highlighting a billboard campaign, as This is Reno’s Eric Marks reported. The People of Red Mountain consider the land around Thacker Pass, known as Peehee Mu’huh, to be sacred.

This week brought repeated days of extreme heat at home — and abroad. 

“A transformer exploded Tuesday at Hoover Dam, one of the nation’s largest hydroelectric facilities, producing a thick cloud of black smoke and flames that were quickly extinguished,” Ken Ritter and Felicia Fonseca reported for the AP. ICYMI: Here’s a video of the explosion.

Four miners were trapped in Nevada Gold Mines’ underground Meikle mine at Goldstrike for six hours on Tuesday, The Elko Daily Free Press reported. The company said the incident was due to a “ground fall.” Safety crews were able to rescue all four workers without injuries. 

Federal officials are completing an environmental analysis to transfer thousands of acres of land from the Air Force to West Wendover, The Elko Daily Free Press’ Tim Burmeister writes.

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