From ‘forever chemicals’ to septic tanks, lawmakers weigh new environmental laws

24 March 2023

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About one-third of the way through the 120-day biennial legislative session, lawmakers have introduced dozens of bills affecting the management of water, wildlife and the environment. In this week’s newsletter, we break down some of the major bills pending before state lawmakers. 

It’s important to note that this list is hardly exhaustive and state lawmakers still have additional opportunities to introduce new bills, even as a major deadline looms next week. This list also does not include several energy-related bills, which I’ll write more about in a future newsletter. 

But this roundup will hopefully provide some insight into what’s at stake as lawmakers propose a range of policies, from prohibiting the sale of certain products that contain “forever chemicals” to giving the Southern Nevada Water Authority the power to curb excessive water use during Colorado River shortages. If you have an opinion on these bills, here is a good explainer from my colleagues Kristyn Leonard and Tabitha Mueller on how to participate in the Legislature. 

The Humboldt River between Lovelock and Winnemucca on February 25, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Water sprays an irrigated field in Northern Nevada on May 18, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

WATER

From septic systems to emergency conservation measures, the Southern Nevada Water Authority proposes an omnibus bill: For Las Vegas water issues, AB220 is an important bill to watch during the legislative session. As currently proposed (and it could very well find itself amended), the legislation would transition the Las Vegas Valley away from septic systems, conserving Colorado River water lost in those systems. It would also make changes to the way groundwater is managed in the Las Vegas Valley. And notably, the legislation would give the water authority emergency powers to limit excessive residential water use during a shortage.

A resolution supporting Colorado River action: The Legislature will consider SJR3, a joint resolution declaring its support for a consensus framework — supported by six of the seven states in the Colorado River Basin — for making difficult cuts to water use later this year. That framework borrowed heavily from a discussion plan first presented by Nevada officials last year.

Creating an account to retire groundwater rights: In many groundwater basins across the state, there are more rights to use water than there is water to go around. SB176, sponsored by Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka), would give the state a new tool — and local water users a financial incentive — to address this problem, known as overappropriation. It would create an account for the state engineer, Nevada’s top water regulator, to buy back excessive water rights.

Responding to a recent Supreme Court decision: In addressing the overappropriation of water, local communities already have an existing tool — the creation of a local groundwater management plan. Last year, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld the state’s first groundwater management plan in Diamond Valley, despite the fact that it deviated from a core principle of Nevada water law — that those who claimed water first in time have a priority to water in times of scarcity. SB113, sponsored by Goicoechea, responds to the court’s ruling, ensuring the plans follow the “first in time, first in right” principle and placing more guardrails around a plan’s goals.

Reducing the presence of pit lakes from mining: In order to reach underground ore, mines often must dig beneath the water table. To keep the pit dry, mines must pump groundwater away from the area where mining occurs. But when mining ceases, the open pit can fill up to create a pit lake. AB313, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno), would seek to avoid the formation of pit lakes by requiring new mines and certain existing mines to backfill the excavated pit as part of a mining reclamation plan when technically feasible. The legislation would also make mine projects responsible for reclamation of surface water and groundwater.

A proposal to prohibit restaurants from automatically serving water: Legislation proposed by Assemblywoman Heidi Kasama (R-Las Vegas), would prohibit restaurants from serving you water automatically when you sit down at a table. Perhaps you want an iced coffee? Or a cherry Coke? You would still be able to drink iced water at restaurants under the proposal, AB186. You would just have to request it. As for compliance, the proposal currently does not assess a fine.

A construction worker walks on a roof during an excessive heat warning on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

HEAT, POLLUTION, ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE

Getting “forever chemicals” out of products: Following other states and building off of a bill passed in the last legislative session, SB76, sponsored by Sen. Dina Neal (D-Las Vegas) would prohibit manufacturers from selling certain products known to contain “forever chemicals,” such as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, or PFAS. These products could include carpets, furniture, fabric treatments, food packaging and cosmetics. The legislation would also require the labeling of cookware known to contain PFAS. It comes as some states and the federal government have taken a more active role in regulating hard-to-remove “forever chemicals” that accumulate in our bodies and in water. The chemicals have been linked to kidney cancer and birth defects.

Addressing contamination at the Owyhee Combined School: A bipartisan bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Alexis Hansen (R-Sparks) requests nearly $65 million appropriation to the Elko County School District to replace a school at the Duck Valley Indian Reservation. AB273 would help address contamination at the Owyhee Combined School. The school’s building sits adjacent to toxic hydrocarbon plumes, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported earlier this year, raising concerns about cancer and the safety of students being educated at the school.  

Outlawing the ban of “neonicotinoid” pesticides in certain uses: Neonicotinoids are a class of synthetic pesticides, developed in the 1990s, that target the nervous systems of insects. The use of these pesticides, however, have been linked to the population loss of pollinators, with a rippling effect across ecosystems, affecting soils, water and other species such as bats. AB162, a proposal sponsored by Assemblyman Michelle Gorelow (D-Las Vegas), aims to minimize the use of neonicotinoids for plants. The legislation, as amended, aims to generally restrict the use of neonicotinoid pesticides for plants that are not grown for “commercial agricultural purposes.”

Enshrining a right to clean air and water in the Nevada Constitution: AJR3 would begin the process of amending the state’s foundational document to include in it a “right to a clean and healthy environment” that includes clean air and water. The Assembly joint resolution, sponsored by Peters, would require the state to protect these rights in an equitable manner. To make it into the Nevada Constitution, the proposal calling for what is known as “The Green Amendment” must be approved by a majority of lawmakers in two legislative sessions. After that, the language would go before voters, where it must receive a majority for ratification.

Requiring the creation of environmental justice impact statements: When state agencies consider new regulations, they often have to prepare what is known as a “small business impact statement,” assessing the economic burden of the new rules. Legislation sponsored by Peters, AB312, would take the same concept and apply it to the environment. Specifically, the bill would require agencies to prepare an environmental justice impact statement in cases where a new rule is likely to have a disproportionate impact on historically underserved communities. The legislation also proposes creating a Commission on Environmental Justice. 

Creating local government plans for heat mitigation in master plans: In many parts of the state, increasing temperatures have had an outsized impact on urban areas, where asphalt and other materials absorb and amplify heat, creating an effect known as the urban heat island. Hot days with excessive temperatures can have a particular impact on vulnerable communities and outdoor workers. SB169, presented by Sen. Fabian Doñate (D-Las Vegas), would require master plans in Clark and Washoe counties to include a heat mitigation strategy. Such strategies could include artificial shade structures, urban forestry, cooling centers and public drinking water.

An interim study on environmental justice issues: Legislation backed by the Joint Interim Standing Committee on Natural Resources, AB71, would require state regulators to conduct a study on environmental justice issues, identifying the communities facing the greatest burdens of environmental harm, including pollution, climate change and limited access to green space. 

Desert bighorn sheep cross State Route 375 north of Rachel, Nev. on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The Western bumble bee, whose range includes parts of Nevada. (Rich Hatfield/Xerces Society.)

WILDLIFE AND CONSERVATION:

The creation of a Healthy Soils Initiative: AB109, sponsored by Assemblywoman Selena La Rue Hatch (D-Reno) would establish a Soil Health Advisory Board within the State Conservation Commission as part of a newly created Healthy Soils Initiative. The initiative would help promote regenerative agricultural practices and support soil science, including through the development of a grant program and soil monitoring. Supporters of the legislation note that soils play a critical role in storing nutrients, ensuring productive agricultural fields and filtering out contaminants. 

Establishing a fund for wildlife crossings: Across the West, existing roads have fragmented important migratory habitat for mule deer and other species in Nevada. For animals, roads pose huge ecological challenges. For drivers, animal crossings can lead to collisions and sometimes fatal accidents. In recent decades, the Nevada Department of Wildlife and Nevada Department of Transportation have worked to address this through constructing wildlife crossings. AB112, sponsored by the Assembly Committee for Growth and Infrastructure, would help fund wildlife crossing projects, requiring the State Board of Finance to issue up to $15 million in bonds for the effort. 

Clarifies that insects and butterflies are indeed “wildlife:” The Nevada Department of Wildlife identified more than 60 invertebrates as species in need of additional conservation attention as part of an update to its wildlife action plan. The only catch: The department that manages Nevada’s wildlife has no authority to protect and manage bees, butterflies and other insects. They are technically not defined as “wildlife” in statute, a loophole of law that exists in about a dozen states across the U.S. AB221, sponsored by Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas), would change that, clarifying that nonpest aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates are “wildlife.” In doing so, the bill would give the state’s wildlife agency the ability to monitor and work to recover imperiled insect species.

An effort to ban wildlife killing contests: Since the start of 2022, there have been more than a dozen wildlife contests in Nevada, whereby participants compete for prizes to kill the most or largest coyotes and other animals, including foxes and bobcats. Following other states, AB102, sponsored by Watts, would prohibit wildlife killing contests after a similar proposal failed before the state wildlife commission by a narrow 5-4 vote in 2021. Coyote killing contests have been criticized by opponents as barbaric and out of step with wildlife ethics; both Clark County and Reno have passed resolutions to ban wildlife killing contests. But hunters in support of keeping the contests have argued a ban would be an attack on events that have long taken place in Nevada, especially in rural communities. Elko, Lander, Lincoln and Pershing counties all passed resolutions in support of keeping the coyote contests in place. 

The creation of an Urban Forestry Program: As cities continue to face increasing heat from warmer temperatures — amplified by asphalt and concrete in the built environment — urban areas have looked at a natural solution for staying a little cooler: trees. AB131, sponsored by Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen (D-Henderson), creates an Urban and Community Forestry Program in the Nevada Division of Forestry. The program, according to the bill, would set targets for urban forests and develop best practices for urban forests. Notably, the program would direct attention to historically marginalized communities. Several studies have shown that the distribution of the urban heat island effect is more pronounced in certain areas of Las Vegas and Reno.

Should the mustang be Nevada’s official state horse? Humans have deep connections with mustangs. To many, they are an icon of the American West, representing freedom, rugged spirit and the expansive sagebrush rangelands that dot the intermountain states. But in many parts of the West, and particularly in Nevada — home to the largest population of free-roaming horses — biologists and rangeland ecologists have documented the overpopulation of mustangs, with significant impacts on ecosystems, riparian areas and even the horse herds themselves. SB90, a bill sponsored by the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, would establish the mustang as the official state horse. Although the move is largely symbolic, both supporters and opponents of the legislation gave impassioned testimony on the legislation at its first hearing.

Yuccas growing on land for the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument near Laughlin on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022 (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

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

There is so much snow in the eastern Sierra: Consider this statistic included in an Associated Press story by Scott Sonner earlier this week: “… this season has now etched its way into the history books as the second snowiest in the 77 years of record-keeping at the Central Sierra Snow Lab — more than 56.4 feet (677 inches, 17.2 meters) with no end in sight.”

The Elko Daily Free Press reported significant flooding in Eureka County last week, with the Red Cross opening up a shelter. More videos and photos of the flood damage and recovery efforts are on the Eureka County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. 

Recent storms have damaged an emergency spillway at a state-operated dam in Lincoln County and roads at another state-operated dam that sits upstream, The Elko Daily Free Press reported earlier this week. State officials are monitoring the issue.

The L.A. Times’ Ian James on flooding in California’s Tulare Lake watershed. 

An avalanche in Mono County has “buried a portion of a major U.S. highway, cut off a string of small communities heavily reliant on one another and stranded food deliveries, mail and even people,” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Kurtis Alexander reports.

The U.S. Supreme Court this week heard oral arguments in Arizona v. Navajo Nation, a case that looks at the federal government’s role in ensuring tribes have access to water and the systemic barriers for tribal governments to enforce those claims to water in court. I highly recommend listening to the oral arguments in a case that could come down to Justice Amy Coney Barrett as the swing vote. More background on the hearing from NPR’s Becky Sullivan and a perspective in High Country News from attorney Derrick Beetso (Diné). 

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) reintroduced a bipartisan bill this week to fix a major oversight in which the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Reservation were unable to receive more than $5 million in interest associated with a water rights settlement in 2009.

An excellent story by the Nevada Current’s Jeniffer Solis looking at how Native American tribes in Nevada, including the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, have worked to restore Lahontan cutthroat trout, which still face major challenges as a species.

Earlier this week, President Biden established Avi Kwa Ame National Monument, which stretches across about 500,000 acres in Southern Nevada. Avi Kwa Ame, or “Spirit Mountain,” is a spiritual and significant cultural center for Indigenous communities across the Southwest.

Federal regulators give NV Energy incentives for its transmission line, Utility Dive reports.

Reno-based geothermal developer Ormat has threatened to sue the Biden administration over its listing of the endangered Dixie Valley toad, the L.A. Times’s Sammy Roth reports, taking an in-depth look at the emerging conflict between geothermal and biodiversity concerns.

The post From ‘forever chemicals’ to septic tanks, lawmakers weigh new environmental laws appeared first on The Nevada Independent.

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