Indy Environment: Earthquakes, Yucca Mountain and why everyone is talking about Walker Lane

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Nevada is turning into California. The latest: Earthquakes. 

“Without scaring people, we should be quite concerned that we could have a fairly sizable earthquake,” said Jim Faulds, the director of the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology.

Two recent Southern California earthquakes shook furniture as far as Las Vegas and have raised questions about the risk of tremors in Nevada. Geologically speaking, the Great Basin is a maze of fault lines, and much of it is still unexplored. Although most associate California with deadly quakes, Nevada is the third most seismically active state (after California and Alaska). 

As state geologist, Faulds has spent a lot of time thinking about this issue and was recently featured in a WIRED story that looked at a fault system that extends through Western Nevada. 

It is known as Walker Lane. 

Walker Lane, Faulds said, accounts for about 20 percent plate motion between the Pacific and North American plates — and it could one day become the main boundary between the plates. But compared to the well-known San Andreas Fault, Walker Lane is disorganized, with smaller faults that make it difficult to assess earthquake risk. What if more than one fault ruptures at once? According to Faulds, there are more questions like that and more research needs to be done. 

And there is a Yucca Mountain angle. 

The proposed nuclear waste repository sits on the eastern part of the fault system. Last week, Faulds and the director of the Nevada Seismological Lab, wrote to Gov. Steve Sisolak urging more surveying of the area with new technology like LiDAR and new geophysical tools. 

“The Walker Lane needs more thorough analysis and Yucca Mountain does as well,” he said.

In general, Faulds said the greatest earthquake risk is in Western Nevada along this fault, but the geological survey is working on a risk assessment for Southern Nevada as well. There have also been tremors across the Great Basin, including the 2008 Wells quake.

Drilling deeper: Across the West and in Nevada, people are drilling deeper in search of a dwindling groundwater supply in many areas. Pulling data from dozens of local and state sources, researchers from the University of Santa Barbara found that “typical wells are being constructed deeper 1.4 to 9.2 times more often than they are being constructed shallower.” Their findings were published in Nature Sustainability on Monday and include a helpful map, republished in the Arizona Republic, that shows large pockets of Nevada where this is an issue.

Speaking of groundwater: Water users in Southern Nevada filed their technical reports as part of a contentious battle over groundwater that feeds the Muddy River. For a year, Nevada’s top water regulator, the state engineer, has been evaluating how much water can be pumped from the aquifer without depleting the river, where there are long-time water rights and habitat for the Moapa dace, an endangered species. The issue came to a head when Coyote Springs, which operates a golf course near Moapa and has long wanted to build homes around it, was denied subdivision maps from the state engineer last May until the water issue is resolved. Now the state is locked in a dispute, involving the Moapa Band of Paiutes, the Las Vegas Valley Water District and Coyote Springs, over how much water is out there.

Bottled water at Anaconda: In the early 2000s, the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) began distributing bottled water to residents affected by the Anaconda Copper Mine, where pollutants leached into the aquifer, affecting residents including members of the Yerington Paiute Tribe. The Reno Gazette Journal reports that those deliveries could stop after a 15-year groundwater study is completed this year.

Going to Grand Junction: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency that manages about 67 percent of the state’s land, is moving its headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado and transferring 222 positions across the Western states, including Nevada. This week, former BLM chiefs, including former Nevada Director Robert Abbey, criticized the move, saying it would make it more difficult for the agency to coordinate and manage the lands. 

And then to Elko: Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt visited Eko this week to tour the expansion of a mine operated by Nevada Gold Mines (the Barrick/Newmont joint-venture). Bernhardt used the visit to the Cortez Mine to tout the Trump administration’s efforts to expedite environmental reviews. Bernhardt told The Elko Daily Free Press that he hoped the streamlining means “decisions are made more quickly but still with high environmental standards.” 

Reid on Walker Lake: Reno Gazette-Journal reporter Ben Spillman did a big story this week on efforts to get water to Walker Lake. He talked to former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who first got federal funds to purchase water rights and send more water to a lake that steadily decreased after humans began diverting the river that feeds it. In 1986, Reid’s first successful run for Senate, he won two counties: Clark and Mineral, where the lake is located. “I went out of my way to make sure I repaid the people of Mineral County,” he said. “I focused on that lake.”