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The Truckee Canal near Fernley. (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

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It’s infrastructure week, and I’m finally writing about something on my mind: Seepage.

In 2015 and 2016, a lot of my time was spent reading documents and testimony filed with the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada. Most of my reading was focused on understanding the big rooftop solar fight. But when you read those long regulatory filings, you often learn about other things. And one of the things I learned about was efficiency — that it’s not so simple.

The same thing is true with water, although it plays out in different ways. And over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about “efficiency” in the context of water infrastructure projects. On the other side of increasing “efficiency” is often someone who is losing out on water. That, in addition to the cost, can make these infrastructure projects challenging. 

First, the Truckee Canal. 

The canal, constructed in the early 1900s, starts about 25 miles east of Reno and diverts part of the Truckee River through the growing town of Fernley and to farms in the Fallon area. But the canal also reduces how much water would naturally flow through the river into Pyramid Lake. 

In 2008, the earthen canal burst open and flooded hundreds of homes in Fernley. Federal water managers wanted to prevent that from happening again, and in December, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation approved a solution: to line parts of the canal with synthetic material and concrete. Doing so could address flood safety concerns, and from a water management standpoint, the project could make the canal more “efficient.” Right now, water seeps through the canal and into a local aquifer. Once lined, water could be delivered to Fallon with less loss to the system. That could, in theory, result in less water diverted away from the Truckee River and Pyramid Lake.

But the project presents a major problem for the city of Fernley. Earlier this month, lawyers for the city sued federal water managers over a plan to place barriers around parts of the canal, alleging that the city relies on water seeping through the canal — the seepage is accounted for. 

The lawsuit, as the Associated Press reported, said the town is “utterly reliant on seepage from the canal to keep the aquifer recharged and in a healthy condition.” What might appear to look like “efficiency” to one — the lining of a canal — might appear to cut off water rights to another. 

A spokesperson for the federal agency declined to comment, with the litigation pending, but the agency wrote in its decision last year that not all parts of the Fernley area would be lined. That would allow for some water to continue seeping into the Earth, despite the fact that the agency argues, under the law, that it is not required to ensure a certain amount of seepage in the area.  

And it’s not the only project that has caught my eye over the past few months. Earlier this year, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service floated a project to upgrade portions of the Steamboat Ditch, a different diversion on the Truckee River that starts west of Reno and snakes its way through the city, supporting an ecosystem for a popular nature area on the way.

As I’ve written before on this, where there is water, there is also vegetation and wildlife. And the path adjacent to parts of the unlined ditch are popular for hikers and runners (including myself).

In this case, the agency proposed several options, but one possibility was to turn several miles of the ditch into a pipeline. The goal was to improve flood protection — and seepage permeating through the groundwater had affected homes near the canal. The project had the added benefit of efficiency. After all, the ditch is diverting water that naturally flowed through the Truckee River. Again, efficiency could, in theory, mean more water flowing in the river and into Pyramid Lake.

But there was a serious downside to limiting water loss and seepage. Piping the water, instead of letting it flow through unlined ditches, could have left a popular recreation area parched. And environmentalists and recreationists raised many concerns about the impact of such a proposal on established wildlife and vegetation that has now existed in that area for more than a century. 

The agency halted its planning process earlier this year. 

These situations are not entirely comparable, and I’m not intending to compare and contrast them. It’s just to say that changing existing water infrastructure is difficult because someone is often benefiting from the way things currently are done. Of course, a big question in both of these situations is where will the “conserved” water go? Will it go back to the Truckee River and increase the amount of water that’s flowing to Pyramid Lake? Or will it go to other users?

Bracket, for a moment, whether you think the projects are right or wrong — or even a matter of settled law. The point here is just to say that it is all more complicated than it might seem at first. I’ll be writing more about the Truckee Canal as the case makes its way through the courts. 

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


THE LEGISLATURE

Mining tax remains in the mix: Legislative leaders are still weighing three resolutions that look to increase revenue by changing the tax formula for mining, my colleague Riley Synder reports in his biweekly newsletter, Behind the Bar. “[Senate Majority Leader Nicole] Cannizzaro refused to close the door on any of the three proposed constitutional amendments changing the mining tax rate that were passed during the 2020 special session. She said that a hearing on any of the three would likely come later in the session, but also refused to rule out the possibility that lawmakers could pass two or more of the resolutions to head to the 2022 ballot.”

The right to repair: “Environmentalists and electronic repair shops on Monday hailed a bill making it easier for consumers to repair their electronic devices as a way to reduce toxic waste,” reports Tabitha Mueller. “But technology firms criticized the legislation for potential cybersecurity risks and unintended consequences.”

WATER 

Most of the state is in severe drought: “The entire state has been flagged for dry conditions, with 92 percent of the state in what climatologists classify a ‘severe’ drought,” Amy Alonzo writes for the Reno Gazette Journal. “Throughout the state, Nevadans will see various drought impacts – a potential uptick in wildlife and bears encroaching into residential areas in search of food; more dust; closed boat ramps; and extended fire season and activity for some areas.”

Supreme Court OKs a water commission: In February, we reported that Chief Justice James Hardesty was eyeing a commission to study how water cases are adjudicated and the possibility of setting up specialized “water courts.” Earlier this month, the court voted in favor of creating a commission on water law. 

Real water faces lawsuits, investigation: Real Water, a Las Vegas-based company founded by former Republican Assemblyman Brent Jones, is facing more consumer lawsuits that link its  bottled water to severe illness, including the hospitalization of a UFC fighter. David Ferrara, with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is following the story

PUBLIC LAND

The federal government’s atomic legacy: Susan Montoya Bryan, with the Associated Press, reports on a renewed effort to compensate those exposed to radiation from nuclear testing during the Cold War. “Lawmakers from several Western states, advocacy groups and residents have been urging Congress to expand a payout program for years, and advocates say the latest push takes on added weight because the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act is set to expire next year. Wednesday’s hearing was the first on the issue since 2018, advocates said.”

A national monument and a proposed wind farm: Energy developer Eolus North America submitted a new application for a wind project in southern Nevada. The project is a smaller version of the Crescent Peak project, which the Department of the Interior rejected in 2018. But the company is proposing to site the project in an area where a coalition of environmental groups and local tribes are advocating for a new national monument. Shannon Miller and Tyler Harrison report on the issue for Fox 5 Vegas.  

Group petitions to list rare buckwheat: The Center for Biological Diversity is asking federal land managers to protect 4,015 acres of land surrounding the Tiehm’s buckwheat, whose only known 10-acre range of habitat, overlaps with the footprint of a proposed lithium mine.

ENERGY

The Department of Energy is looking to cut the cost of solar in half by 2030. 

A lithium pilot project: “A Houston-based oilfield company announced plans...to launch a lithium extraction plant in Nevada, capitalizing on the growing demand for battery material. Schlumberger’s New Energy division said its new venture, NeoLeith Energy, will launch a pilot plant in Clayton Valley. Officials said it would extract lithium from brine while reducing water consumption by over 85 percent compared with current methods,” Jonathan Ng writes for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Update: This post was updated at 5:45 p.m. on March 31, 2021 to note that a proposed wind project outside of Las Vegas is called the Crescent Peak project. An earlier version of this story described it as the Crescent Dunes project.

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