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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Nevada: Climate Change May Impact Existing Refuge Water Concerns

A greenish blue lagoon surrounded by dry shrubbery

Kings Pool at Ash Meadow National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada is a source of precious water in the desert. Photo: Cyndi Souza, USFWS.

Multimedia iconPodcast: Devils Hole pupfish. This iridescent blue inch-long fish makes its home in the 93 degree waters of Devils Hole, which is located within Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge near the California/Nevada border. The Devils Hole pupfish is found nowhere else in the world.

In southwestern Nevada, the nation’s need for renewable energy and a national wildlife refuge’s need to fulfill its mission is converging with climate change.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is an anomaly: an oasis of spring-fed wetlands in the Mojave Desert. Even more unusual are the plants and animals that have evolved there. Scientists have found 26 species that they believe exist only on or near the refuge.

When the Bureau of Land Management notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) in early 2009 about a right-of-way application to install a solar array on BLM land 10 miles from the refuge, FWS and National Park Service staff considered how the project might affect the refuge and its resources. Most concerning was a proposed wet cooling system that would consume 4,500 acre-feet of water per year – water to be obtained via pumping from a deep-water wells. (An acre-foot is the amount of water required to fill a one-acre area to the depth of one foot.)

Concerns about climate change effects on regional water supplies added to the Service’s sense of urgency.

A giant chasm
Devils Hole is the only natural habitat of the Devil's Hole pupfish, which thrives in the hot water and has been listed as endangered on the Endangered Species List since 1967. Photo: National Park Service.

“The majority of climate models indicate that the desert Southwest is headed for a hotter, drier future,” says Rick Kearney, the assistant regional director for Science Applications in the Service’s Pacific Southwest Region. “The increased frequency and duration of droughts we expect will almost certainly impact the aquifer that supports Ash Meadows.”

“Ash Meadows is really about water, from the fish to the endemic plants,” said refuge manager Sharon McKelvey, who said that a drop in groundwater levels would imperil the refuge’s rare and endangered species. Among Ash Meadows Refuge’s endemic species are at least 10 freshwater snail species, aquatic beetles and a variety of listed native fish – all dependent on warm springs from a deep aquifer.

The endangered Devils Hole pupfish’s sole natural habitat is Devils Hole, a water-filled abyss on National Park Service land within the refuge. The fish spawn on a rock shelf near the surface and are vulnerable to water-level shifts.

The view of Devil's Hole from the outside
The Devils Hole spring, a unique desert pupfish habitat, is administered by Death Valley National Park and located within the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Nye County, Nevada. Photo: Cyndi Souza, USFWS.

In coordination with BLM and the National Park Service, the Service’s Nevada Field Office in Reno negotiated with the renewable energy company, Solar Millennium. Eventually, the company agreed to use a dry cooling system that would consume much less water – about 400 acre-feet per year. Even then, negotiations surrounding the project’s water use continued, said Amy LaVoie, then the deputy assistant field supervisor for Ecological Services in Nevada. Ultimately, Solar Millennium agreed to increase its water rights acquisition – with a portion dedicated to conservation, to ensure a net-neutral effect on water supplies.

Solar Millennium’s Amargosa Farm Road Solar Project will produce 500 megawatts of solar energy – enough to power 150,000 homes. The Department of the Interior cites the

project as a model of collaboration in its initiative to increase large-scale renewable energy production on public lands. Negotiators from the Service and other DOI agencies recognized their roles in supporting the initiative as they worked to find solutions for all parties, says LaVoie.

Biologists, hydrologists and land managers had to give themselves a crash course on solar technology so they could discuss alternatives.

“The more educated we became, the better positioned we were to protect the refuge and Devils Hole,” LaVoie says. “There are many different types of solar technology, and it’s important to understand how they work on the ground and how they could affect wildlife.”

Learning about solar technology is time well spent. The demand for solar energy is growing with the nation’s need to produce domestic energy and address climate change. Beyond the Amargosa Farm Road Solar Project, applications were filed for eight other solar projects within 20 miles of Ash Meadows Refuge in 2010.

(This story was modified from a story written by Kendall Slee and was published in the March-April 2011 Refuge Update newsletter)


Climate Change Focus: Engagement, Adaptation

Author: Kendall Slee

Contact: Scott Flaherty, Pacific Southwest Region, 916-978-6156, scott_flaherty@fws.gov

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