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OPINION: Better the Devils Hole we know: the plight of Ash Meadows

Dexter Lim
Dexter Lim
Opinion
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Ninety miles away from the lights of Las Vegas and sheltered from the extremes of America’s most arid desert, a tiny Devils Hole pupfish swims about the pool that it calls home: the only pool that any of its kind ever will. 

The spring known as Devils Hole — in which the rarest fish on Earth is born, lives and dies — comprises the entire world for this species. The population is constantly one potential devastating earthquake or contamination event away from extinction. 

Yet above the crystal blue water, an even more destructive force is poised to irreparably break the groundwater system that makes life in Devils Hole and the wider 24,000 acres of Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge possible. Unlike a natural disaster, however, this threat is altogether human — and preventable.

Since January 2023, Rover Metals has attempted to conduct exploratory drilling for future lithium mining next to one of the most unique ecosystems on the planet. The year of Ash Meadows’ 40th anniversary as a protected reserve is now marked by the Canadian firm’s latest efforts to drill up to 150 feet down, within 2,000 feet of the refuge. 

These operations stand to destroy Ash Meadows as we — and all of its inhabitants — know it. This warning has been elevated by a diverse bloc of conservationist organizations and Indigenous representatives throughout 2023, and was recently supported by a unanimous letter from the Nye County Commission.

To understand how and why these operations threaten the future of Ash Meadows, the geological context underlying this embattled land must be assessed: The oasis is fed by a labyrinthine aquifer system that produces thousands of gallons of water every minute.

Current knowledge of the location of groundwater conduits and the strength of strata layers in the region remains incomplete. As a result, drilling has a significant potential to pierce sediment beds or water-conducting fault lines that descend to bedrock.

The results of this would be dire. Alterations to the complicated underground structure of Ash Meadows changes water movement throughout the entire wetland. This not only increases the mobility of contaminants, but has the potential to dry up life-giving springs by diverting groundwater flow. Even operations that take place outside of the legally designated wildlife refuge could trigger these events because the area occupies the same watershed.

The argument to approach lithium mining with parsimony in the interest of conservation could be seen as ironic. As the threats of climate change become increasingly clear in unnatural temperature and weather events around the world, the need to eliminate society’s carbon and greenhouse gas emissions intensifies with each passing year.

Current technology for transitioning to a sustainable energy grid demands increased production of not only lithium but critical metals across the periodic table. An environmentalist arguing to impede this extraction may seem to be playing the Devil’s (Hole) advocate. 

However, this rhetoric is unacceptably non-contextual toward uniquely vulnerable populations such as the one that exists in Ash Meadows. It has also been overwhelmingly used to legitimize future profits and privileges for the mining industry, as it has historically enjoyed

Although the practices of mining actors are not monolithic, the temerity of Rover Metals to pursue drilling so close to a protected nature reserve demonstrates the lack of modern legal accountability and oversight that drives the broader industry’s heavy repercussions to ecological integrity and human rights. The fragile conditions of Ash Meadows and the inherent impacts of mining amount to a precarity that cannot be risked.

The protection of Ash Meadows is also warranted by current law. Of the 26 endemic species that inhabit the refuge, 12 of these are listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened or endangered: the strongest protected status that a nonhuman organism can receive. But you can’t call a fish to the stand in court. And even with arrays of equipment and scientific professionals monitoring the environment’s health, none of these measures would matter when it would be virtually impossible to safely rescue or relocate these marvels of evolution in the event of groundwater contamination or diversion.

There is no doubt that Rover Metals — or any other party — would face severe legal and financial consequences if their operations were to damage Ash Meadows in the ways that conservationists across the Amargosa Basin have forewarned. Yet no amount of fines and penalties would be capable of restoring what stands to be lost through irreparable habitat destruction and extinction.

Conservationists have a long fight ahead to fend off Rover Metals’ established project. Compounding this struggle is the fact that there is currently nothing to stop any of the other mining firms staking claims across the Southwest from simply taking Rover’s place. However, there is a fix to this susceptibility. 

The most certain path forward to guarantee environmental justice and security for Ash Meadows is to deny permits to Rover Metals, and to further safeguard the area from any future mining claims through an administrative mineral withdrawal

Establishing this bulwark falls under the authority of the Biden administration, specifically the Department of the Interior and its current secretary, Deb Haaland. Federally withdrawing Ash Meadows from mineral extraction would prevent new mining claims from being filed in the area. Although this would not affect Rover Metals’ project, it would stop new mining companies from establishing themselves within such a sensitive region. 

In a time of unprecedented species loss, Ash Meadows must not be sacrificed. It is imperative to reject the notion of betraying stewardship of this natural wonder that has given humans a connection with nature for millennia, and sustained life found nowhere else on Earth. We have direct avenues to demand that our public and regulatory officials work to preserve the Galapagos of the Mojave, for the protection of biodiversity and to ensure that this special place can be enjoyed by the generations to come.

Dexter Lim is a student at UNLV,  who will graduate in spring 2024 with a Bachelor of Science degree in earth and environmental science and a minor in political science. Lim currently works as a student ambassador to Clark County School District for the UNLV Department of Geoscience and as a Resident-Scientist-in-Schools for the UNLV College of Sciences.

The Nevada Independent welcomes informed, cogent rebuttals to opinion pieces such as this. Send them to [email protected].

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