Indy Environment: Burning Man gets updated decision from the BLM; NV Energy considers wildfire risks

Nevada News

In an effort to provide a more comprehensive report on water, land and development issues, I’m starting a “beat sheet” breaking down the environmental news of the week and looking ahead. Let me know whether you have any tips, suggestions, criticisms or story ideas at daniel@thenvindy.com. 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.

Morning friends, how’s the playa?

On Friday, land managers released a final environmental analysis on Burning Man’s permit to operate on federal public land in the Black Rock Desert. In it, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees about 67 percent of the state’s land, denied Burning Man’s request to potentially expand it’s event from 80,000 to 100,000 burners and could implement drug screenings, a move that earned an interesting write-up in the libertarian magazine Reason.

Burning Man has been frustrated throughout this process.

After the BLM released a draft version of its analysis in April, Burning Man told its attendees that the proposed measures to mitigate the event’s impacts were an example of federal overreach. It “would spell the end of the event as we know it,” Burning Man said. The BLM has since dropped some measures, including one to line the gathering with about 10 miles of concrete barriers.

The BLM and Burning Man’s message now: Black Rock City will happen in 2019.

In a statement to the Reno Gazette Journal Friday, Burning Man said its focus is on the 2019 event, and it is working “to fully analyze and understand” the 876-page environmental document. On Wednesday, the BLM said that “at this time, BLM has no new announcements on changes to law enforcement and security policy or procedures related to Burning Man 2019.”

The question is what happens going forward.

The environmental document, as the name suggests, addresses many legitimate environmental concerns with having an event on a desert playa, a sensitive and complex ecosystem. These are important concerns, increasingly so as event organizers have explored expanding to 100,000 people. Event organizers and most attendees argue they have always been aware of them. Ingrained into the event’s culture is a “Leave No Trace” ethos, but even Burning Man’s CEO recently told the Gazette Journal that burners need to be better about trash.

The BLM, forced to balance competing environmental, economic and safety interests, has a hugely difficult task, especially when it comes to an event that has no analogue. It has struggled with where to come down on Burning Man as the uniquely Northern Nevada event has grown.

Before a project can be sited on public land, federal land managers are required to inventory a project’s impacts, per the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and recommend mitigation measures aimed at protecting natural and cultural resources. In Nevada, NEPA is everywhere. To permit a mine, there’s a NEPA review. To permit grazing, there’s NEPA. NEPA is even at the center of the state’s ongoing lawsuit with the Department of Energy over plutonium shipments.

No different for Burning Man, except a little bit.

First off, the Reno public comment meeting at the Nugget Casino Resort in April was, as BLM meetings go, freewheeling. Burning Man, the project proponent, publicly pushed back on the land agency, at times cutting off and rebutting federal officials. Yet if Burning Man is talking to the BLM differently, organizers are quick to argue that the BLM is treating them differently.

See: Screenings.

Although the BLM told Reason that several federal rules gave it authority for the screenings and mitigation, Burning Man organizers have argued that it is overreach far beyond the scope of the NEPA process. The provision requiring a third-party contractor to conduct drug and firearm screenings is bound to remain a flashpoint. In addition to constitutional concerns, they are worried it could further clog traffic and cause long entrance delays. There is already a BLM law enforcement presence, and Burning Man has said some issues are addressed by their current mitigation measures. At the end of the day, the BLM and Burning Man have a differing opinion about what the health and safety risks are, a gap that might be difficult to bridge.

What’s interesting to me are the broader implications in the context of ongoing debates about the BLM’s scope. As always, there is a lot more to unpack in future stories. Until then…

Power flames: Responding to the wildfire risk posed by electrical infrastructure, NV Energy announced on Friday that it could temporarily turn off power to customers in areas like Mt. Charleston and the Lake Tahoe Basin when weather creates high-risk fire conditions.

The move comes with increasing awareness of the role that electrical wires and transmission can play in starting wildfires, especially as the risk for fire increases with a warmer climate that is often leaving more dry vegetation in its wake. In some cases, fires have led to significant liabilities for utilities. On Tuesday, California utility Pacific Gas and Electric agreed to pay $1 billion for claims stemming from three fires between 2015 and 2018. And in May, Gov. Steve Sisolak signed Senate Bill 329, which required the utility to submit a natural disaster plan to mitigate utility-caused fire risks.

On its website, NV Energy outlines how its Public Safety Outage Management will work, noting that affected customers will be notified at least 48 hours in advance. A decision to shut off power will weigh a number of wildfire risk variables, the utility said, including weather and vegetation.

DRI President steps down: After a two-year tenure, Desert Research President Kristen Averyt announced this week that she was resigning from the post, citing personal reasons. Averyt, the first female president of the research institute, came from the University of Colorado, Boulder with a background in climate science and Colorado River issues. As the research institute looks for a new director, Interim Vice President of Research Kumud Acharya will take over for Averyt.

Lower Truckee River restoration: Last Friday, I checked out some of the progress on restoring riparian habitat on about 11 miles of the lower Truckee River west of the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center. Spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy, it was a collaborative effort that brought in local, state and federal agencies. And other organizations, from Patagonia to Trout Unlimited, have brought volunteers to work on restoration. The ongoing restoration projects, aimed at restoring instream flows and reconnecting the river to floodplains, required significant funding and years of negotiations. I’ll be writing more about this soon. Although the Colorado River gets a lot of ink, the Truckee River is an interesting study for managing water in the arid West. It’s a bi-state river that serves many different masters: agriculture, recreation, tribal users, municipal users, industrial users. There are endangered species. There are operational guidelines. There is the legacy of human use. And there’s the ongoing question of how the environment fits into all of it.

It’s all connected: A study from the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Arizona quantifies the effects of groundwater pumping on streams across the U.S., KUNC reports.

Brownfields cleanup: The Environmental Protection Agency is awarding a $600,000 grant to Pershing County and Lovelock through its Brownfields Program to clean up contaminated and blighted land. According to a news release, the funds will help “assess and cleanup community gateways, an industrial park and the downtown corridor and former mine sites.”

I-80 Spill: Twenty-two railcars were derailed in northeastern Nevada Wednesday, spilling what appeared to be aluminum oxide and vegetable oil, the Reno Gazette Journal reported. No one was injured. The train was also transporting munitions to the Hawthorne Army Depot on the other side of the state. The Federal Railroad Administration is investigating the incident.

Clips from the news:

  • After a wet winter and interstate drought plans, federal water managers say Lake Mead is expected to end the year higher than its current elevation. (Review-Journal)
  • Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto introduced legislation that’s aimed at reducing emissions at public schools through a grant program via the Department of Energy. (Nevada Current)
  • It was a long winter, and hiking trails above 8,000 feet in the Tahoe Basin are still fairly snowy. Some trails are submerged and others are muddy. (Nevada Appeal)
  • Buyer beware. Las Vegas water ranks high for water hardness, a report brought to you by a company that sells water softeners treat hard water. (Review-Journal)
  • An interesting piece on the national picture for rooftop solar. “The question for all sides: What does a successor to net metering look like?” (InsideClimateNews)

This story was updated at 8:27 a.m. on Thursday, June 20 to include information about a recent groundwater study and links to other news stories. 

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