Nevada Newsmakers

Rare wildflower stands in the way of major lithium mine in Nevada, key state official says

News - August 5, 2020

The future of a major open-pit lithium mine in Esmeralda County -- considered one of the most promising deposits of lithium in the world --  hangs on the results of at least three studies on the mine's impact on a rare desert wildflower, a leading state official said on Nevada Newsmakers.

Brad Crowell, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, told host Sam Shad the mine's future is pinned on results of three ongoing studies on Tiehm’s buckwheat, a rare plant that only grows in the area of proposed mine, about 200 miles southeast of Reno.

If the plant is added to the federal endangered species list, all planned drilling and road building would be halted.

"It is a pretty rare plant, so whether it is going to be listed, it looks very plausible at this point," Crowell said.

Lengthy reviews on the issue are currently being conducted by the state and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The University of Nevada, Reno is studying if the plant could be moved and still thrive. That study is being funded by the group that wants to open the mine, Ioneer USA Corp.

"I think the big question is whether you can mitigate the impact of the species and whether it can be propagated (elsewhere)," Crowell said. "UNR is going to be looking at that. It is fine that they are doing that but it also means we have to keep that in mind when UNR provides input to out scientific review process, that they have been retained by one of the interested parties."

Lithium is a high-valued commodity in today's high-tech world and is used to manufacture such things as batteries for Tesla's electric cars. Ioneer has already spend millions in development and planning for the mine, including the $60,000 grant to UNR to study the feasibility of transplanting the wildflower elsewhere, according to The Associated Press.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that emails obtained by conservationists show that a botanist hired by Ioneer wrote that the rare wildflower should be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Mining proponents fear that would kill the project.

“I feel like maybe one very important thing isn’t clear, and that’s that these plants could die at any stage of this experiment," Beth Leger,
a biology professor who also heads UNR’s Museum of Natural History, wrote in April, according to the Associated Press.

While the state study has been ongoing, the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife recently jumped into the controversy head first, Crowell said.

"The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service just announced this past week that they are going to begin their 12-month review process to determine if the (endangered) listing is warranted," Crowell said. "It got kick started because the state was doing its own process. While the federal endangered species timeline is rarely met, the state process will still be ahead of that timeline. So it will be instructive to see two parallel processes going forward that is looking at two similar sets of data to come to an outcome.

Pipeline a pipe dream

Crowell also said that a controversial pipeline plan to bring water from Eastern Nevada to Las Vegas is "dead for the foreseeable future."

While the Southern Nevada Water Authority still owns ranches and water rights in eastern Nevada, they don't translate into more water flowing into Las Vegas, Crowell said.

The SNWA spent 30 years and $33 million in trying to make the pipeline a reality. The pipeline had once been viewed as a lifeline for Las Vegas to maintain economic growth that's predicated on finding water to support new and existing development. In April, the SNWA said it would not appeal a court ruling that blocked the agency’s plans.

"Yes, they (SNWA) still own the ranches and the water rights and right now those rights are irrigation rights, so they would have to request that they be switched as a manner of use," Crowell said.

"But they also had applied for a huge amount of other water rights beyond the ranches that they owned and that would be the bulk of the water that were going to use in that pipeline. And they have since withdrawn those applications, associated with the rights that didn't belong with the ranches that they own.

"So they would have to reapply and have those awarded before they could do a pipeline of any quantity that would be worth building from the north to the south," he said.

"So I think the idea is dead for the foreseeable future," Crowell added.

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