Indy Environment: With the legislative session over, climate change focus shifts to transportation, water debate moves to interim

Indy Environment: With the legislative session over, climate change focus shifts to transportation, water debate moves to interim

Indy Environment: With the legislative session over, climate change focus shifts to transportation, water debate moves to interim

The legislative session ended Monday night (June 3) with most energy, water and conservation bills decided before the midnight deadline. 

One last-minute measure was Senate Bill 508, adding an appropriation of up to $5 million to match federal efforts for preventing and planning for wildfire.

After wildfire tore through more than one million acres last year, the Legislature boosted funding for the Division of Forestry in other areas too, something I’ll be writing more about in the coming days.

But for the most part, the die was cast before midnight.

The session saw a flurry of legislation attempting to boost renewables, conserve public land and address long-term water issues.

A lot of it passed, some failed and the remainders got kicked to the interim. What’s clear is that there are some interesting dynamics that set the stage for the conversations ahead during the interim, heading into 2020 and preparing for the next session.

1) Clean energy support does not mean zero-carbon support: When it comes to climate change legislation and decarbonization, clean energy is politically unique in Nevada. Nevada produces no coal and little oil and gas compared to other Western states, from California to Colorado. 

That’s allowed supporters to make a measure, such as the Renewable Portfolio Standard (Senate Bill 358), as much about economics as about clean energy.

There is going to be a push to continue raising that standard to 100 percent, but it’s also clear from this session that the decarbonization conversation is shifting to other sectors, like transportation. 

That could get trickier, given that its impacts are more dispersed and because of the culture around driving. It’s worth noting that a bill to inventory carbon emissions (Senate Bill 254) passed on a party-line vote, whereas the bill requiring utilities to purchase more renewables passed with bipartisan support.

2) On water, it could be a cycle of conflict, then collaboration: The Legislature managed to pass several water bills. There was one on domestic wells (Assembly Bill 95). 

Another one on water planning (Senate Bill 150). And another bill on protecting groundwater (Senate Bill 140). 

But the session, like those before it, saw heated debate around three state-sponsored bills (Assembly Bill 30, Assembly Bill 51, Assembly Bill 62) that aimed to look at the limits of water rights in the nation’s driest state. 

The first two bills died and the third bill ultimately got passed to the regulatory process. 

They created a ruckus during the session, but they also started a dialogue.

Now there are talks of an informal interim working group to let water users help shape policy, rather than letting them react to legislation once it’s been introduced. The approach is maybe a tacit acknowledgement that sometimes conflict leads to collaboration (just ask the Colorado River states).

3) The tie between the recreation economy and conservation: This is not a new trend, but it was apparent this session.

A $217 million conservation bond package (Assembly Bill 84) and a bill to create a Division of Outdoor Recreation (Assembly Bill 486) passed with near-unanimous support.

“The session didn’t come out of nowhere,” Andy Maggi, the director of the Nevada Conservation League, said on Wednesday. He said he observed a “swing” of bipartisan support, especially for clean energy, compared to last session. 

He argued that it was the result of lobbying, mobilizing volunteers and an election where energy was the subject of two ballot measures. 

But Maggi added that there are several lingering issues left on the table, including a long-sought community solar bill and proactive legislation that tackles conflicts among water users over long-term water policy.

So onto the interim working groups. Until then… 

“Towards increased statutory management:” That quote comes from a groundwater report released by a Western water policy group at Stanford. 

The report suggests that statehouses in the Southwest are erring toward stricter rules for managing groundwater, an important source of water for farming, mining and municipal use. What makes the report unique is that it compares and contrasts water policy in similarly arid Western states, including Nevada. 

Most states rely on a similar legal framework for water, but the nitty-gritty can vary in significant ways. 

Compared to states like Arizona and California, Nevada started with a much stricter legal code for regulating groundwater. But the report found that Nevada was not without its issues, especially in having the legal tools to address overstressed aquifers where there are more rights to water than there is a sustainable amount of water to withdraw.

The report (worth reading in full) provides a good overview of Nevada water law, as well as some fascinating statistics about how water is used. There is also a great chart showing how the Southwest states compare on water rights exemptions, metering rules and penalties. 

Setting water aside: Earlier this week, I wrote about a bill to prevent future over-appropriation by setting aside water in some aquifers. The bill was significant because it drew bipartisan support from a variety of water users.

It’s not all drought on the Colorado River: As the seven states in the Colorado River basin spent the last few years hashing out a water-reduction deal to prepare for dry conditions, the public dialogue focused largely on drought. But as the region is expected to become hotter and drier (stressing water demands), weather is also expected to be more uncertain and extreme.

To that point, the Colorado River Research Group recently released a white paper on “black swan” events: megadroughts and mega-flooding. From the paper: “There are many reasons to believe that the likelihood of such events occurring in the Colorado River basin is increasing at the same time our water-supply safety net — including reservoir storage, groundwater reserves, and “unused” apportionments — is increasingly under unprecedented stress.”

A grand bargain? This comes as the Colorado River states are set to start more wide-ranging negotiations next year on how to manage overstressed binational water sources for cities, agricultures and ecosystems from Denver to Mexicali. Another working paper this week, by two Colorado River experts, looks at whether there is a “grand bargain” on lingering long-term issues.

Diesel Emission Mitigation $$: The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection is seeking a second round of applications for funding under the state’s diesel emission mitigation fund, which came from the settlement with Volkswagen. The funds can be used to convert older public and private emission fleets to less-polluting vehicles. Applications are due July 31.

EVs $$? When Gov. Steve Sisolak signed Senate Bill 299 last month, conservationists hailed it as a win for putting more electric school buses on the road. The legislation would allow schools to tap into an account known as the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure 

Demonstration program to help transition their fleets from gas-powered vehicles to electric. But the Nevada Current reports there are serious questions about whether funding is available. 

The Current reports that more than half of the account, funded by NV Energy ratepayers, is allocated and there are competing demands for the rest of the money. It’s an important reminder (as I’d guess this is happening elsewhere) that statutory changes are only one step in enacting effective policies.