Native people, environmentalists fight Nevada mine’s plan to pump billions of gallons of groundwater

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Native people and environmental groups are fighting a proposed gold mine expansion in northeastern Nevada they say could dry up springs, harm wildlife and destroy cultural resources.

The dispute pits one of Nevada’s newest major mines and the biggest mining tax generator in Elko County against five environmental groups along with native people who once had freedom to live, hunt and pray on the landscape without disruption.

Opponents of the mine expansion are worried about phase two of the Long Canyon Mine near Wells that includes a dewatering plan that would pump billions of gallons of water annually from an aquifer deep below the Pequop Range and Goshute Valley.

“We need to preserve our groundwater dependent ecosystems in this state, not fritter them away for some shiny metal,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada director for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups. “This has the potential to be the single biggest mining water impact we have ever seen.”

Nevada Gold Mines, which operates Long Canyon, said in a written statement the company is “committed to strong environmental stewardship” and is working with oversight from 22 federal, state and local entities.

Related: Las Vegas water pipeline battle is life-or-death fight for Shoshone sacred site

“NGM has taken significant actions, both proactive and as required by regulation, to care for the environment,” the statement read. 

According to the company the mine produced more than 170,000 ounces of gold in 2018 and state records indicate it paid more than $3 million in net proceeds of minerals taxes.

The pumping would disrupt natural flows to Johnson Springs Wetlands Complex, a network of 88 springs, and potentially harm species like the Relict Dace fish, which is under consideration for an endangered species listing, and herds of mule deer which migrate through the region.

Native people also say the mine operator’s plan to replenish groundwater by leaching it back from surface ponds is inadequate because the returned water won’t be as pure as water that flows naturally from the deep, carbonate aquifer.

“That is the deepest water, way down there,” said Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederate Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, of the aquifer. “That is why it is real pure when it comes out from under the mountains, that is where we get our ceremonial water.”

It’s not the tribe’s first clash with the mining company. Tribal members also opposed the development of Long Canyon’s first phase, which opened in 2016.

They accused the mining company and Bureau of Land Management of downplaying their concerns in a rush to develop the project.

Specifically, they said the construction of the mine in the heart of the tribe’s aboriginal territory destroyed or displaced countless artifacts and ruined a landscape that was important for historical and spiritual reasons.

“We tend to think of history as words in a book in the library,” said Monte Sanford, a consultant to the tribe. “For the tribes, their history is in the landscape.”

The tribe’s lawyer, Paul Echo Hawk, said phase two will only compound the damage.

“Of course they have this new proposal to pump massive amounts of groundwater out that is going to to further destruction to the area,” Echo Hawk said.

The tribe and environmental groups are protesting water rights applications with the state by Nevada Gold Mines, which are necessary for the project to move forward.

The applications would allow the mining company to pump water for a process called dewatering, which is essentially lowering the water table below the depth needed for people and machines to work in the mine.

More: Developers ask court to overturn groundwater pumping moratorium in Cold Spring Valley

Officials in the Division of Water Resources say it could be months before the State Engineer issues a final decision on the applications.

Dewatering is a common practice with large mines but Long Canyon plans are striking a nerve because of the impacts to the Johnson Springs Complex and because the sheer scope of the project raises concerns the ramifications could go beyond the area the mining company analyzed.

If Long Canyon were to go forward it would be one of the largest dewatering efforts of its kind in Nevada, pumping an amount of water annually that’s comparable to more than half of the annual water consumption in the Reno-Sparks area.

Hydrologist Tom Myers, who studied the proposal on behalf of the environmental groups, said it would lower the water table hundreds of feet in the vicinity of the mine and the effects could expand outward for 30 or more miles.

“It will dry up everything connected to the carbonate aquifer,” Myers said.

Nevada Gold Mines says it has plans to keep water in the springs complex and protect the environment in general.

The company says it will return the pumped water to the area and sustain surface flows to the springs. The company also says it is drafting a plan to preserve species that could be affected.

“NGM is committed to protecting our host communities and the environment where we work,” the company said in a written statement.

But assurances from the company aren’t enough for opponents, who see similarities between the mine plan and a languishing pipeline proposal from Southern Nevada Water Authority that seeks to pump water from rural Nevada to Las Vegas.

More:District court judge deals blow to Las Vegas pipeline plan

Both the mine and the pipeline plan, the latter of which has suffered numerous legal defeats, raise concerns that pumping could permanently damage springs and that by the time the damage shows up in monitoring efforts it would be too late to save them.

“Once the effect starts you are not stopping it,” Myers said. “It will be too late.”

Also, critics of the dewatering proposal say the mine company’s modeling doesn’t take into account the potential large scale pumping could affect neighboring Independence Valley.

“If it is more conductive they are showing you could pull water from Independence Valley,” said John Hadder, director of the environmental group Great Basin Resource Watch. 

The risk, Myers said, is that pumping water from deep underground could result in reduced flows to springs many miles from the dewatering site.

Myers said further study could help understand complex underground structures that affect the flow of groundwater.

“We have never stressed the aquifer anywhere near what they are going to do,” Myers said.

Benjamin Spillman covers the outdoors and environment in Northern Nevada, from backcountry skiing in the Sierra to the latest from Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.

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