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The Nevada Independent

What environmental bills passed, failed in the 2023 Nevada Legislature 

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
Fly fishing on the Truckee River

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. This is my last newsletter as I go on book leave next week. Amy Alonzo, our new environmental reporter, will be taking over future editions of Indy Environment. Email her at [email protected]

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The Legislature meets for a regular session every other year for 120 days. That short window often leaves little time for broad policy discussions, and while nearly every politician in the state recognizes the fundamental importance of issues such as water scarcity, directed debate on policy solutions often gets brushed aside or punted to the next session for additional study.

The recurrent question: Should lawmakers meet more regularly? Another story for another time. 

But even as other priorities — public funding for a future Las Vegas A’s stadium or a sweeping film tax credit — made headlines, lawmakers moved forward several important (even if incremental) changes to the law on environment, energy and natural resources issues. Other pieces of legislation — notably a program to create a water rights retirement program — failed to advance to the governor’s desk. Lombardo’s deadline to sign or veto bills is midnight on Friday, meaning that even proposals approved by the Legislature might not become law.

Here’s a roundup of where those measures stand with lawmakers adjourning last week.


An omnibus water bill for Southern Nevada: Lawmakers approved — and Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo signed — lengthy legislation billed by Las Vegas water officials as a way to cut back on water use amid a changing climate, municipal growth and uncertainty on the Colorado River. The legislation, AB220, made a number of changes to law, notably giving the Southern Nevada Water Authority the ability to curtail excessive water use — typically outdoor landscaping — if a deep shortage is declared on the Colorado River. The bill creates a program to help residents transition away from septic tanks, and it gives the state more authority to regulate groundwater.

Lawmakers hear, but do not vote, on water rights retirement program: A widely supported proposal to create a state-run program to buy back water rights never made it to the floor of the Assembly or Senate, despite backing from groups across the aisle. SB176, sponsored by Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka), aimed to create and fund — initially with $5 million — a tool that would allow state regulators to buy back water rights in areas where past state regulators had issued more legal rights to use water than there was water to go around. Environmental groups made a final push for the legislation in the last days of the session, but it was never voted on. Supporters of the legislation noted that many neighboring states such as Arizona and Utah, both of which faced prolonged drought, have invested hundreds of millions into reducing water use.

With no opposition, lawmakers vote to back water curtailment system: In response to a Nevada Supreme Court ruling last year, Goicoechea brought legislation to ensure that future groundwater management plans — locally created plans to address overuse — follow a core tenet of Nevada water law: That those who claimed water first in time, have a first right to use water in times of shortage. Last year, the state Supreme Court upheld the state’s first plan to curtail groundwater in Diamond Valley, which deviated from a strict application of the “first in time, first in right” principle. SB113, which passed the Assembly and Senate unanimously, responded to the case. The governor signed the bill earlier this month.

Heated debate reveals tensions over bridging science and policy: Legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) sought to require that state regulators use the “best available science” to make decisions and clarified that the use and appropriation of any groundwater should not conflict with existing rights — those that might be “first in time” (see above). Despite weeks of negotiations over the wording of AB387, it received major pushback from large water users during a final hearing, including the Nevada Farm Bureau, Nevada Gold Mines and the state’s two large industrial centers, the Apex Industrial Center and the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center. The legislation passed on a party-line vote in the Assembly, but did not receive a vote in the Senate. The issues discussed during these bill hearings were consequential for the long term (and the written testimony is compelling). The Nevada Supreme Court is likely to weigh in on similar issues in an ongoing case involving big Southern Nevada players, including Coyote Springs and the Las Vegas Valley Water District. 

Effort to regulate mining pit lakes does not receive vote: After receiving a surprise vote to advance out of an Assembly committee, AB313 — legislation intended to avoid the creation of massive pit lakes in the wake of hardrock mining — did not receive a vote in the Legislature. The bill, backed by environmentalists, progressive groups and Indigenous activists, aimed to reduce the creation of large-scale, artificial lakes that are created when mining stops and groundwater, once actively pumped out of the pit, flows into the empty pit. The mining industry pushed back against the legislation, arguing that it would halt development and was duplicative of existing rules. Executives noted that they strive to backfill — and avoid pit lakes — when possible. 

Lombardo vetoes unanimous refrigerant legislation over evaporative cooling language: The governor vetoed bipartisan and unanimously passed legislation, AB97, that aimed to prepare the state for the national transition away from hydrofluorocarbons — a potent greenhouse gas — that are commonly used in refrigerants. But the governor’s veto of the legislation, sponsored by Assemblywoman Melissa Hardy (R-Henderson) did not have to do with that. Instead, according to his veto message, it had to do with a provision in the legislation, inserted at the request of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, to prohibit “the use of” evaporative cooling (such as swamp coolers), a technique that uses large amounts of water . Such language, Lombardo argued, could “place an outrageous cost-burden on many recreational, governmental, and business facilities throughout the state.”


Legislation to ban the sale of products with ‘forever chemicals’ goes to the governor's desk: Lombardo is still weighing SB76, legislation sponsored by Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas), which aims to prohibit the sale and manufacture of certain products containing PFAS, more commonly known as “forever chemicals.” The legislation would apply to a list of everyday products, including carpets, food packages, cosmetics and certain children’s toys. SB76 comes as the state more generally looks for ways to address the spread of PFAS, a class of artificial chemicals that public health experts have linked to negative health outcomes, including cancer. The legislation passed with significant bipartisan support — only eight lawmakers voted against it. 

After legislative effort falters, state commits to revising extreme heat rules for workers: With the backing of workplace activists, progressive groups and organized labor, Sen. Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas) introduced SB427, which aimed to create guidelines for employers whose employees work in extreme heat (defined as above 105 degrees Fahrenheit) or poor air quality. That legislation came after a regulatory process to create a workplace rule to mitigate high heat environments — with water, rest breaks, shade and planning — stalled last year. The legislation eventually failed — as did a final consideration of the formal regulation this month. But the state agency responsible for the rules recently committed to work with business groups on revisions to the proposed regulation. 

Funding a $64.5 million replacement of the Owyhee Combined School: Lombardo signed AB519, legislation to replace the Owyhee Combined School on the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of Duck Valley Indian Reservation. Tribal members identified multiple concerns with conditions at the school, including potential health risks from an underground plume. My colleagues Roćio Hernández and Tabitha Mueller wrote more about the legislative effort earlier this month. The legislation, notably, also creates a pathway to help rural school districts fund building improvements. 

Lombardo vetoes heat mitigation planning legislation: The governor vetoed SB169, passed with bipartisan support, to require Clark and Washoe counties to include planning around heat mitigation in their master plans, documents that are meant to guide the development of land. With rising temperatures and development amplifying the impact of urban heat, both regions include some of the fastest-warming cities in the country. In his veto message, Lombardo said the legislation was “well-intended” but he claimed “there is no data definitively supporting the proposition that development is causing rising temperatures in either Washoe County or Clark County.” Lombardo noted that several other provisions in the bill are already going into effect.

Environmental justice bills do not make it out of the Legislature: Several measures sought to help center environmental justice issues in decision-making and permitting on the state level. Used in federal permitting, environmental justice describes the ways in which the cost of habitat loss, pollution and other environmental harms are often felt acutely by vulnerable communities or are disproportionate depending on ZIP codes and demographics. AB71, which did not get a vote, would have required the Division of Environmental Protection to conduct an interim study on environmental justice. AB312, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno), would have created an Environmental Justice Advisory Council to advise policy and offer grants.


Lawmakers pass a bill on NV Energy planning: In the final weeks of the legislative session, Watts introduced — and lawmakers passed — AB524, legislation that declared several policy directives for the state. They include emphasizing the importance of reliability and affordability, as well as independence of regional energy markets, a thorough utility planning process and a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. All and all, the legislation, which first drew hours of testimony, aimed to bring more rigor to utility planning, while responding to calls for NV Energy to build more in-state generation, from solar farms to power plants. The legislation also responds to recent instances where NV Energy has amended plans that are usually submitted every three years, a decision that critics have said is less transparent and does not give state utility regulators a holistic view of the utility’s planning options. Lombardo has not yet signed it.

Lombardo signs off on measure to create a program for zero-emission trucks, buses: The state is poised to create a Clean Trucks and Buses Incentive Program under AB184, which the governor signed last week. The legislation, capitalizing on federal funding, creates an incentive helping to encourage businesses and fleet managers to adopt zero-emission medium-duty and heavy-duty trucks and buses. Environmentalists and groups focused on transitioning away from fossil fuels applauded the measure being signed into law.

Lawmakers approve legislation to put more rules on natural gas planning: SB281, which passed with unanimous support in the Assembly and Senate, proposes creating rules around how natural gas utilities, overseen by state regulators, plan investments borne by ratepayers. The bill, which earned support from Southwest Gas, builders and environmental groups, would create a resource planning process, similar to what is required of NV Energy, to evaluate how to plan for the future. Supporters said the bill, sponsored by Sen. Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas), could help to put more structure around how utilities plan amid rising costs and climate change.

An array of solar panels at the Copper Mountain Solar 3 facility
Solar panels seen at the Copper Mountain Solar 3 facility near Boulder City on Monday, April 22, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)


An effort to close a gap in insect conservation gap stalls: Lawmakers heard — but did not vote — on legislation that would have defined butterflies and insects as wildlife, closing a gap in state law. In Nevada, as is true in several states, many terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates are not included in the statutory definition of wildlife, making it difficult for biologists to manage their habitat and help threatened populations recover. AB221 aimed to close that loophole. Despite a number of hearings, it never received a vote in the Assembly or the Senate. 

Legislators pass bipartisan ban on ‘neonicotinoid’ pesticides in certain uses: By a near unanimous vote in both chambers, lawmakers voted to approve AB162, a proposal sponsored by Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow (D-Las Vegas) that aims to reduce the use of synthetic pesticides, known as “neonicotinoids,” that are linked to the population loss of pollinators, as the chemicals target the nervous systems of insects. The bill did not affect commercial agriculture. 

Lombardo signs off on wildlife crossing legislation: Lawmakers approved AB112, which aims to reduce highway collisions with wildlife through constructing dedicated crossings. Over the past few years, Nevada’s efforts to reconnect splintered habitat with wildlife crossings have been seen as a way to protect wildlife and drivers, ultimately saving costs associated with the avoided crashes. The legislation comes with a $5 million appropriation to build wildlife friendly road infrastructure, helping to match federal funding recently made available for those efforts. 

Urban forestry is signed by the governor: Legislators passed and Lombardo signed AB131, which was sponsored by Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson) and creates an Urban and Community Forestry Program in the Nevada Division of Forestry. The legislation was billed as a way to use tree canopy as a natural way to decrease the impact of urban heat, the result of increasing temperatures and the ways in which the built environment — materials like asphalt — trap heat. The program could set targets for urban forests and develop best practices for cities.

Legislature stalls on Healthy Soils Initiative: Lawmakers heard but did not vote on AB109, legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Selena La Rue Hatch (D-Reno), to establish a Soil Health Advisory Board and a new initiative focused on soil health. The bill looked to promote regenerative agricultural practices and soil science through a grant program and monitoring. 

Humboldt Peak range seen from Secret Pass near Elko on Dec. 12, 2021.
Humboldt Peak range seen from Secret Pass near Elko on Dec. 12, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

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

A well-reported, deep story by my colleague Naoka Foreman looking at the long-term effects of subsidence in the Las Vegas Valley on the North Las Vegas neighborhood of Windsor Park — and the ongoing effort to make residents whole after false starts and many promises.

My colleague Amy Alonzo breaks down what the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s new public lands rule — intended to elevate conservation concerns — could mean for Nevada.

Las Vegas and Reno both rank as cities with the fastest-warming summers, Axios reports. 

“Nevada is emerging as a major battleground to determine the fate of a century-and-a-half-old mining law as demand for critical minerals in the U.S soars,” The Nevada Current’s Jeniffer Solis writes, looking at the impact of a precedential decision on the 1872 Mining Law. 

Long-term Colorado River talks are set to begin soon, KUNC’s Alex Hager reports. 

ProPublica takes a deep dive into the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s inflated estimates for how much turf it could remove under a 2021 law banning water-guzzling grass. 

“A leak at a wastewater pumping station in the east valley caused more than 850,000 gallons of sewage to spill out of a manhole last week, and some of it ended up in a wash that leads to Lake Mead,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Colton Lochhead reported. 
Nevada is getting $12 million in federal funds for habitat, the Nevada Current’s Jeniffer Solis reports. Funds will go toward work in the Montana Mountains and the Humboldt O’Neil Basin.


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