Changes in Child Tax Credit Would Have Outsized Impact on Rural Children

Changes in Child Tax Credit Would Have Outsized Impact on Rural Children
Changes in Child Tax Credit Would Have Outsized Impact on Rural Children

This story was originally published in the Daily Yonder here.

The families of more than a quarter of all children living in rural America would benefit from a proposed expansion of the Child Tax Credit that has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is now under consideration in the Senate.

The expansion would change the credit’s eligibility criteria to include low-income families who don’t get the full tax credit per child because they don’t pay enough taxes to qualify. The current credit phases in until family earnings reach a certain threshold.  Most low-income families – usually ones who make under $40,000 annually – receive partial or no credit.

“Because of that structure, it particularly disadvantages children who live in rural areas largely because pay is typically lower in rural areas,” said Stephanie Hingtgen, research analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Clearly this is upside down.” 

Under the proposed legislation, more than 80% of the children who don’t get the full credit would see a boost in their family’s income from the credit, according to Hingtgen. The legislation would also increase the credit slightly, from $2,000 to $2,100 per child. 

Analysis by Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. For methodology, see CBPP blog post.

A study from a Harvard University research center found that when families are given a higher child tax credit – as they were in 2021 during the temporary Covid-19 pandemic relief effort – depression and anxiety rates among parents were lower, possibly because of reduced financial worries.

An estimated 27% of all rural children would benefit from the proposed expansion, compared to 22% in metropolitan areas, according to Center on Budget and Policy Priorities data

The benefits could be even larger for rural families of color, who on average earn less than white families. In rural areas, 46% of Black children, 39% of Latino children, and 37% of American Indian and Alaskan Native children would receive more money under the Child Tax Credit expansion. For each demographic group, a significantly higher proportion of children from rural areas would benefit than children from urban areas, the analysis showed.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the legislation in a rare bipartisan vote. Now the Child Tax Credit expansion is being considered by the Senate. If passed, the change would go into effect for the current tax filing season (2023) and continue for three years, ending after the 2025 filing season. 

“This is Congress’ only shot this year to pass legislation that would substantially boost the incomes of millions of children and families with low incomes and substantially lower child poverty,” Hingtgen said. 

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

A Native voting ecosystem in Nevada

Pauly Denetclaw

The Yamba Shoshone Tribe is located in rural Nevada, mostly dirt roads that make it challenging for some citizens to drop off their mail-in ballots. In 2022, the solution was unusual but it worked for the Yamba Shoshone.

“They’re not just in the middle of Nevada, but I mean it’s complete dirt roads to get there,” said Stacey Montooth, executive director for the Nevada Indian Commission.

Tribal representatives went on horseback to collect completed ballots and drive them an hour to the county seat in Austin, Nevada.

Since 2016, the Native American vote in Nevada has become stronger and stronger. Nonprofit organizations, state and tribal governments have worked together over nearly the last decade to increase the power of the Native vote. The solutions Nevada groups have found to increase civic engagement for rural and urban Native voters is direct engagement, meeting people where they’re at and ultimately, and multiple choices for how to cast a ballot.

There are 20 federally recognized tribal nations that predate the state of Nevada and still live within, what are now, the boundaries of the state. More than 62,000 Native Americans from over 200 different nations live in urban areas.

American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders make up 5.1 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census. All together the number of Indigenous voters in the state is 158,322.

To put this into context, Nevada’s ninth most populous city, Sparks, has a population of 108,025. The state’s eight most populous area, Paradise, has a population of 191,238. Both are located next to either Las Vegas or Reno.

The journey to increase voter engagement started in 2016 when three Native American veterans and two tribes sued the state of Nevada for violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Some citizens of Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and Walker River Paiute Tribe were forced to drive at most 96 miles round trip to access in-person voter registration and in-person early voting. On election day, Pyramid Lake Paiute citizens had to drive 32 miles round trip according to court documents. All this effort because there were no on-reservation polling locations or in-person voter registration.

“My elderly grandma who lived on the reservation all her life. She was having to drive 90 minutes to vote and as she got older, she had to find someone to help her get to the polling station,” Montooth said.

In comparison, some of the affluent residents of Lake Tahoe, on the Nevada side, could walk to their polling locations. On the east shore of Lake Tahoe, in Glenbrook, Nevada, the median sale price for homes, in 2021, was $2.17 million according to a Reno Gazette Journal article.

The court sided with the plaintiffs and required Washoe County to establish satellite polling locations on Pyramid Lake Paiute and Walker River Paiute lands ahead of the 2016 general election.

Since then, Native leaders and citizens have taken it upon themselves to increase voter engagement in innovative ways.

“The one solution for Indian Country is actually multiple choices because there isn’t one size fits all,” Montooth, Walker River Paiute Tribe, told ICT.

There are a number of things the state of Nevada has done to make voting easier, including same-day voter registration, and expanding the use of the Effective Absentee System for Elections, created to make voting easy for Nevada military personnel deployed overseas. Tribal citizens who live on their sovereign lands are now eligible to use this system and vote from the comfort of their homes.

The state also created an opt-out system instead of an opt-in system to get voting services on sovereign lands. Before they had to apply to request these services. Presently, every county is automatically required to work with tribal nations to establish voting services every election.

Tribal IDs can now be used to register to vote. If they meet the state requirements of a photo, issue, and expiration date.

Other solutions that tribes have implemented especially for elders, is utilizing community health representatives.

“They’re trusted voices. They go into these people’s houses on a regular basis, and so it just works perfectly,” Montooth said. “Folks complete their ballot, then you give it to the (community health representative) and (they) can drop it off in that conveniently located Dropbox as they’re heading back to the clinic.”

The Duckwater Shoshone Tribe has many Shoshone language speakers and they worked with the county and state to provide language interpreters for those casting their ballots.

In 2022, for the first time Nevada Indian Commissioner Tammy Tiger and executive director Montooth were invited to a post-election debrief hosted by the Secretary of State. County clerks and county registers from all 16 counties are invited to attend.

“We were representatives of Native America. We got invited and it was really historic, but on the other hand, it just seems so logical and simple. It’s crazy that it took all this time,” Montooth said.

Tiger represented urban Native voters and Montooth represented rural Native voters.

The wins in Nevada, while expedited over the last eight years, build upon the work of many generations of Native people who fought for their right to vote. One that was granted 100 years ago but that wasn’t really available until the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Up to the 60s, Native voters were being denied their right to vote on lands they’ve managed since before this country was even a thought.

“I don’t have words for it because I think about what a change it’s been in our community in just a couple of generations,” said Taylor Patterson, executive director for Native Voters Alliance Nevada. “I think about my grandparents and the spaces that they never had access to.”

Building civic engagement has led to monumental wins in the sagebrush state for Native people.

There is one Native American elected to the Nevada Assembly, Shea Backus, Cherokee. The state has passed legislation to codify the Indian Child Welfare Act and require local police to take reports of missing Indigenous people regardless of jurisdiction as well as upload that information to the National Crime Information Center and National Missing and Unidentified Persons databases.

“During the redistricting process, it was the first time that tribes really got a seat at that table and that we were able to lobby and ask, ‘Why is Walker River Paiute Tribe in two assembly districts and two state senate districts, and two congressional districts?” said Patterson, Bishop Paiute Tribe. “And also talk to Walker River about why that matters.”

Looking toward the future, there has also been a push to increase Native poll workers. Reno-Sparks Indian Colony has a volunteer election committee that runs the tribal elections. During state and federal elections, this committee goes as a group to train in Washoe County to be poll workers for their nation.

“It just makes such a big difference when you go to vote, to see someone that looks like you,” Montooth said. “Better yet, (someone) you know, it just improves the experience so much.”

Commissioner Tiger, Choctaw Nation and Muscogee Nation descendant, was a poll worker at the Moapa Band of Paiutes voting location during the primary election a couple weeks ago. She drove three hours roundtrip, waking up at 4 a.m., to get the polling location set up by 7 a.m. to welcome voters.

Tiger was borned and raised in the Las Vegas metropolitan area and describes herself as an urban Native.

“I know some urban Natives came from down in southern Nevada to work, I went to work the Moapa polls. Some folks went all the way up to Reno, and this is how we envision this statewide,” Tiger said. “How do we work together to support one another and make sure that all of our people have access to voting?”

One way to increase voter turnout would be to make election day a holiday, Montooth said.

Another resource needed for urban Native voters, especially in the Las Vegas metro, is a nonpartisan voter guide that just lays out the facts for each candidate.

“We’ve got 20 judges on a ballot, and so it’s like, what are these trusted sources that are really going through and doing candidate questionnaires and collecting information so you have a more informed vote?” Tiger asked.

For Patterson, it’s increasing the number of Indigenous people elected to city, county and state office. The state needs 61 elected Native American, Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian people elected to gain representative parity, according to Advance Native Political Leadership. They currently have one, Nevada Assembly member Shea Backus.

“We do not have the Native candidates that are representing us and so it was a really big deal to us to make sure that Shea got elected and we were really putting as much energy as we could behind her,” Patterson said.

Born in 1917, Flora Greene, Pyramid Lake Paiute, wasn’t considered a citizen of the United States. When she was 7 years old, the Indian Citizenship Act was passed that would theoretically allow her to vote at 18. She didn’t cast her first ballot until she was 99 years old.

“There had always been something that had come up,” Montooth said.

In 2016, after litigation made the county provide on-site voting for her nation, Greene cast her first ballot in the general election.

“When you think about 90-year-old people who couldn’t go in the front of restaurants in downtown Fallon, or couldn’t use certain public transportation, and they just… they’re so tenacious that Ms. Flora was able to let all that go. And on the one occasion where we’re all equal, I mean she had a little extra pep in her step because she was doing it on her land,” Montooth said.

That was the only presidential election Greene voted in before she passed away in 2018.

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Tribes face uphill battle to defend sacred land against lithium mining

The coming electric battery revolution in America will require billions upon billions of gallons of water to mine lithium – and many of the new U.S. mines will be located in the drought-prone American West. An investigative report from the Howard Center at Arizona State University. Find more stories from the project here and here

Noel Lyn Smith and Pacey Smith-Garcia
Howard Center for Investigative Journalism

OROVADA, Nev. – Myron Smart remembers stories told by his father and other tribal elders about the connection between Thacker Pass in Nevada, where a new lithium mine is under construction, and a tragic moment for the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone.

In Northern Nevada near the Oregon border, Thacker Pass was traditionally used by Smart’s ancestors to camp, hunt and gather, collect obsidian and medicine, and perform ceremonies. On Sept. 12, 1865, the 1st Nevada Cavalry raided a campsite and slaughtered at least 31 Paiutes.

“The cowboys came to kill everybody – woman, children, all the elders,” Smart said last September to a group gathered at Thacker Pass on the anniversary of the massacre. The deadly encounter was an episode in the Snake Wars, one of many skirmishes with Native Americans in the 19th century West, as white settlers came looking to mine for gold.

Now, Smart said, a new kind of mining threatens to wipe out culturally important sites related to the massacre, harming the tribes yet again. Lithium Nevada Corporation, a subsidiary of Canada-based Lithium Americas, will blast through rock and dirt in the area as the company builds a massive, open-pit lithium mine. The federal Bureau of Land Management issued a Record of Decision to greenlight the mine in January 2021. All court challenges to the decision have failed.

The Biden administration has set an ambitious goal for electric vehicles that has prompted a major push for U.S. supplies of lithium and other critical minerals. The Thacker Pass mine owners have courted support from the Energy Department, which is considering a record-breaking, billion dollar loan to the project, and from General Motors, which has pledged $650 million in capital investment, the largest ever by an automaker in battery raw materials. The mine is projected to supply enough lithium each year to produce batteries for one million GM electric vehicles.

This 1869 map from the Bureau of Land Management’s Deputy General Surveyor Abel Abed Palmer shows the remains of an “Indian Camp” between sections 22 and 23. That area is also mentioned in Palmer’s field journals as the site of the Sep. 12, 1865 massacre where the 1st Nevada Cavalry raided and massacred Paiute and Shoshone people. (Source: Bureau of Land Management 1869, University of Nevada Reno)

Indigenous communities are on the frontlines of a push to create new, domestic sources for lithium. The U.S. has only one active lithium mine, at Silver Peak in Nevada. With a wave of new applicants, that will not remain the case for long. An analysis by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University found nine proposed lithium mines are within 10 miles of Native American reservations.

Besides Thacker Pass, lithium mines are also planned near the Black Hills in South Dakota – which the Lakota and nearly a dozen other tribes claim as their ancestral land. Exploration drilling for a mine in Arizona is occurring 700 feet from sacred springs used by the Hualapai people. In a months-long investigation, the Howard Center found lithium mines use vast amounts of water to extract the critical mineral needed for lithium-ion batteries.

The Black Hills of South Dakota.

Rules exist on paper that sound as if tribes have protections. Federal agencies are required to consult with tribal governments before making decisions that impact their communities, including on mining development projects. However, Valerie Grussing, Executive Director of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, calls tribal consultation a “check-box exercise.”

“Even if they’re able to document their tribal consultation efforts to anyone’s satisfaction,” Grussing said, the federal agency leaders “can still make whatever decision they want.”

Grussing’s claim was confirmed in Congressional testimony by a senior official with the Department of Interior. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) asked the official at the May 2022 hearing if it were true that “BLM has few options under current law to deny a proposed mine – even if that mine was on land, say, sacred to Native American tribes.”

“Under the mining law, if there’s a discovery of a valuable mineral, there is a right to mine. So there can’t be a complete shutdown of a mining operation,” replied Steve Feldgus, who has since been promoted to run the Interior Department’s Land and Minerals Management program. There is no exception for land held sacred by Native American tribes.

Michon Eben, cultural resources manager for the Reno Sparks Indian Colony, agreed. Her tribe wasn’t consulted on the Thacker Pass lithium mine, even though its members consider Thacker Pass ancestral land. “The American government can allow mining corporations to destroy our lands out here, and especially our sacred sites, especially from the lands that were stolen.”

Myron Smart talks about the historical significance of Thacker Pass to the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe at an event near Orovada, Nev. on Sep. 9, 2023. The event commemorates the massacre of at least 31 Paiutes by the 1st Nevada Cavalry on Sep. 12, 1865. (Noel Lyn Smith/Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

Lithium Nevada denied it will harm the massacre site, and BLM said the massacre site is on private land that isn’t under its jurisdiction.

Grussing said the experience of tribal communities at Thacker Pass is merely a continuation of harmful colonial processes.

“It’s retraumatizing that now this particular place of not just importance, but of massacre, is going to be lost.”

The process of greenlighting Thacker Pass

Federal records show that BLM attempted to consult with three tribes – Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, and Winnemucca Indian Colony – all with reservations in the same county as the Thacker Pass mine. BLM said that these tribes were invited to consult “due to their proximity to the project area.”

None responded the following year, and in January 2021, BLM’s Winnemucca District Office issued its Record of Decision greenlighting Lithium Nevada to mine for lithium at Thacker Pass.

Randi Lone Eagle, chairwoman of Summit Lake, said in an email to the Howard Center that she has no record of receiving BLM’s tribal consultation invitation dated mid-December 2019, when tribal offices start to close for the holidays. A few weeks later, Lone Eagle said she came “under tremendous pressure to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“If government agencies are serious about fulfilling their trust responsibilities,” Lone Eagle wrote in the email, “they will do more than simply send letters; they will call us directly and visit us to speak face-to-face.”

“Sending a letter to a tribe and receiving no response does not constitute sufficient effort to initiate tribal consultation. And so that’s all they did,” said Eben, the tribal preservation officer for Reno Sparks Indian Colony. The federally recognized tribe in Washoe County has just over 1,100 members of Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe ancestry.

“Just because regional tribes have been isolated and forced on to [sic] reservations relatively far away from Thacker Pass does not mean these regional tribes do not possess cultural connections to the Pass,” said Eben of Reno Sparks.

She contended that BLM should have invited tribal consultation for Thacker Pass with all of the Paiute and Shoshone tribes, before issuing the mine’s permits. That includes Reno Sparks.

“They should have consulted with the Reno Sparks Indian Colony because we have members that descend from Paiute and Shoshone.”

Eben wrote a letter to BLM in June 2021 that identified a dozen tribes that have “powerful historical connections to Thacker Pass,” where “some of our ancestors were massacred.”

“The American government was engaged in a campaign to massacre us,” she said in an interview with the Howard Center. “They were sanctioned to massacre us over here because they saw this land and all the minerals that were here.”

She likened opening a mine here to “disturbing Pearl Harbor or Arlington National Cemetery,” noting U.S. memorials to lost soldiers are venerated by the public and not subject to desecration.

In response, after the mine was approved, BLM acknowledged the massacre took place and invited members of Reno Sparks in July 2022 to consult on “indirect areas of potential effects” near the mine. BLM agreed to review approximately 100 acres of BLM-managed land abutting the mine site that had previously not been surveyed. The National Historic Preservation Act’s tribal consultation guidelines allow for a post-review discovery process to ensure that federal agencies “make reasonable efforts to avoid, minimize or mitigate adverse effects.”

For Grussing, “mitigation means loss.”

“If avoidance is off the table by the time we’re at the table, the process is broken. And that so frequently what we see happening with these consultation processes,” said Grussing.

“There’s no consequences. That’s what it comes down to.”

Problems with tribal consultation

BLM issued its Record of Decision to approve Thacker Pass on January 15, 2021, in the last days of the Trump administration.

Eleven days later, Joe Biden, the newly elected president, issued a memorandum highlighting the importance of federal agencies engaging in meaningful consultation with tribes on projects that impact their communities.

The president issued a follow-up memorandum in November 2022, announcing his desire to develop a uniform process for federal agencies to follow for consultation with tribes. That process would require federal agencies to “strive for consensus with Tribes or a mutually desired outcome. Consultation should generally include both Federal and Tribal officials with decision-making authority regarding the proposed policy that has Tribal implications,” the memorandum said.

Yet Grussing, head of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (NATHPO), said she doesn’t think the administration is going to do anything different.

“They’re going on the record and they’re making an investment in various levels, prioritizing Indigenous knowledge in federal decision making and lots of things like that. But when the rubber meets the road, we’re not seeing it put into practice at places like Thacker Pass.”

Grussing said that one of the challenges is the lack of Indigenous knowledge and experience within federal agencies.

“There’s practically zero requirements or standards and even accountability,” Grussing said. Federal agencies retain full discretion over the content of their decisions and don’t need to meet a prescribed outcome, according to the National Historic Preservation Act.

Lithium Nevada’s open pit lithium mine can be seen under construction in Thacker Pass, Nev. on Oct. 10, 2023. Members of the Paiute and Shoshone tribes believe that the mine is located where their ancestors were massacred by the 1st Nevada Calvary in 1865. It is a sacred site to those tribes. (John Leos/Howard Center for Investigative Journalism

NATHPO is a nonprofit membership association that advocates for protecting sites that perpetuate Native identity and culture. Its main advocacy priority is funding for tribal preservation officers, who serve as liaisons with federal agencies on the management of tribal historic properties.

Chairwoman Lone Eagle of the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe does double duty as the tribal preservation officer for her tribe.

“We get dozens of letters, by mail, from government agencies about proposed projects every month,” she said.

Reno Sparks’ tribal preservation officer, Michon Eben, echoed these concerns. “I’m getting projects from up all over and I’m one person. And so for me, I almost have to pick and choose,” she explained. “Tribes need help.”

She said she hopes that tribes can receive more federal funding to better tackle what is sent to them, “so that we are equipped and educated and have resources to help us to respond to all these letters.”

Grussing added that without more resources, tribal preservation officers will be unable to carry out their duties successfully.

Is Thacker Pass on sacred land?

One of the most contentious aspects of the Thacker Pass project has been the location of the 1865 massacre.

The BLM’s Record of Decision greenlighting the lithium mine at Thacker Pass did not mention the 1865 massacre. That omission, the tribes contend in their 2023 lawsuit, violates the National Historic Preservation Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and National Environmental Protection Act.

But the Howard Center found at least two records from the BLM’s own archives that show the site of the massacre – a map and a hand-written field journal, both prepared in 1868 by U.S. Deputy Surveyor General Abel Abed Palmer – which depict that the massacre occurred at the mine’s site.

Palmer’s field notes describe finding the “remains of an extensive Indian camp,” which he explains was the site of the 1865 massacre. He also lists seeing “many Indian skulls and remains.”

He notes within the map and his field journal the camp’s location between two specific sections of land near the Trout Creek, a waterway that also runs through the Thacker Pass lithium project site.

Comparing the 1868 map created by the BLM and the map from Lithium Nevada’s Environmental Impact Statement, the Howard Center found that the massacre site appears to fall within BLM jurisdiction and within the area of potential area of effect.

BLM maintains that the massacre site is in fact on private land outside of their jurisdiction. In an email from the BLM Winnemucca office to the Howard Center in December, Spokesperson Heather O’Hanlon wrote that “the location of this site is on Private ground and not within the project footprint.”

Lithium Nevada also backed up this claim. “Ten times this issue has come up in front of a judicial system and 10 times it’s been dismissed,” said Tim Crowley, vice president of government and community affairs. Crowley said lawsuits and attempts to win an injunction by ranchers, tribes and environmental groups have all failed.

In an interview with the Howard Center, Eben from Reno Sparks disagreed that the massacre site only includes the Paiute camp location documented by Palmer. “That’s where it began,” she said about the massacre, but people were killed for miles outside of the campsite.

“Our people did not come out of their huts and just die right there. They ran – because it lasted for several hours,” she said.

Even with the post-review consultation process underway, Eben feels like saving Thacker Pass is a lost cause.

“No matter how much I participate, how much I consult, how much I put in writing, how much I’m at the table – sometimes it’s just not enough. It’s not enough.”

Last ditch efforts

Reno Sparks, Burns Paiute and Summit Lake Paiute filed a lawsuit in February 2023 in the U.S. District Court of Nevada against local BLM officials and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Among the tribes’ allegations was that the BLM did not make a reasonable and good faith effort to identify historic properties in Thacker Pass or consult the appropriate tribes, as required by the National Historic Preservation Act.

While these efforts were pending, a federal judge said construction on the mine and supporting facilities at Thacker Pass could start in March 2023.

In December, the judge dismissed the lawsuit. In a virtual press conference held by Reno Sparks Indian Colony, former chairman Arlan Melendez said, “We lost the lawsuit because the law favors mining, especially in this state.”

Melendez also announced that they would not appeal the court’s decision to allow construction of the mine to continue. “By the time you would get through to appeal, they would have already desecrated all of the sacred sites. So there’s no sense trying to do that,” he said.

Reno Sparks attorney Will Falk also spoke at the press event on Zoom.

“We all have to make sacrifices to fight climate change,” said Falk about the national push to quit fossil fuels and transition to green energy at the December 2023 press conference. “What they mean is that Native peoples, again, have to sacrifice their culture, their ancestral homelands, so that someone can make a lot of money extracting lithium.”

Reno Sparks and Summit Lake Paiute tribes also asked Interior Secretary Haaland and the National Register coordinator to determine the eligibility of the 1865 massacre site and Thacker Pass for the National Register of Historic Places.

They submitted their request to BLM’s Humboldt Field Office and Winnemucca District Office, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office. In a January 2024 email to the Howard Center, BLM said it is still in consultation with the tribes on these sites and has not yet forwarded a nomination to the National Park Service, where the official list of America’s historic places is kept.

Time for reform?

In September 2023 the Biden administration’s interagency working group on mining reform submitted a report with recommendations to revise the laws around mining on public lands.

The report found that the rules are clearer for consultation with tribes when minerals are developed on their present-day reservation lands. But it also noted that tribes have far fewer rights to land outside their present-day borders to which they may hold historical, cultural and spiritual ties.

The report said that it is of “utmost important [sic]” to make clear the procedures for conducting effective consultation and coordination with tribes. New rules must also be implemented to protect sacred, cultural or historical sites, so that some areas are considered off limits for hard rock mining. “Tribes should have more control over sacred lands,” the report said.

A billboard on U.S. 95 near Orovada, Nev. warns against Lithium Nevada’s Thacker Pass lithium mine on Sep. 9, 2023. The group, People of Red Mountain, oppose construction of the mining operation in Thacker Pass because of environmental concerns and damages to an area sacred to Paiute and Shoshone tribes. (Noel Lyn Smith/Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

The report also proposed ways to create that control, such as developing stronger requirements for tribal consultation on mineral exploration and development projects, “including where the proposed action is within a Tribe’s ancestral homeland even if it is not proximate to the Tribe’s current reservation.”

The report also recommended that the federal government establish mandatory procedures and outcomes for tribal consultation, and tribes be given extra time and resources to participate meaningfully.

Tribal consultation should require federal authorities to meet and share information with potentially impacted tribes as early as possible. “Early engagement with and consideration of impacts on Indigenous Peoples is widely accepted to be an industry best practice,” the report explains.

In May, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) proposed legislation to reform U.S. mining law on public land that seeks to codify Pres. Biden’s recent memorandum on creating uniform standards for tribal consultation. He doubled down at the start of Native American Heritage month in November, proposing two more House bills that would strengthen tribal roles in managing public land and protect Native American cultural sites. As of late January, none of the bills has advanced to committees for further review and discussion.

Community benefits

The mining reform report recommended that mining companies negotiate community benefits agreements with impacted tribes.

One tribe impacted by the Thacker Pass mine did negotiate an agreement with Lithium Nevada.

The Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe signed a Community Benefits Agreement with the company in October 2022. The Fort McDermitt reservation is approximately 26 miles northeast of Thacker Pass, near the state line of Nevada and Oregon.

Crowley said the agreement is the culmination of more than 10 years of dialogue with the tribe. The mining operation will provide employment opportunities for tribal members and people who live on lands that surround the mine, he said.

The agreement provides for job training and construction of an 8,000 square foot community center that will have a daycare, preschool, playground, cultural facility and greenhouse where plants can be grown for use in traditional medicine practices.

“It’s a very isolated area that has very limited opportunity for not just a job, but a job that pays twice the state salary average,” Crowley said.

“It’s an agreement that is the foundation for a really healthy relationship going forward.”

Lithium Nevada declined to provide a copy of the community agreement contract, citing that it is a private document.

In early December, the Biden administration issued a progress report on its work with Tribal Nations. The White House report said that 12 federal agencies are on track to updating their consultation policies. Nine agencies – including the Interior Department – had revised Tribal Consultation policies or developed trainings for federal staff who work with tribes or on policies with Tribal implications.

Grussing of the National Tribal Historic Preservation Officers association is skeptical. In 2007 the U.S. voted against the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the UN General Assembly, which advanced the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) standard. The standard upholds Indigenous Peoples’ rights to do more than consult on a project – FPIC ensures that tribes either give or withhold their consent on a project impacting their communities. In 2016 the U.S. ratified the declaration but called its support “aspirational” and “not legally binding.”

According to Grussing, until the U.S. adopts the FPIC standard, tribal consultation is “kind of meaningless. And I don’t see that happening,” Grussing said.

Emma Peterson and Caitlin Thompson contributed to this story. It was produced at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, an initiative of the Scripps Howard Fund in honor of the late news industry executive and pioneer Roy W. Howard. For more see Contact us at or on X @HowardCenterASU.

Lithium Liabilities: The untold threat to water in the rush to mine American lithium

Albemarle’s lithium mining facility in Silver Peak, Nev., photographed on Oct. 16, 2023, lithium is pumped from the ground and later processed until it is ready to be shipped off and built into batteries. Albemarle plans to open a second U.S.-based lithium mine in North Carolina in 2026. (John Leos / Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

This story is used with permission from the Reporters from the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.

SILVER PEAK, N.V. — Nyle Pennington, a veteran water scientist who tracks groundwater for local governments, stopped at a monitoring station just one mile from America’s only active commercial lithium mine. For years this well in Central Nevada typically held enough fresh water to reach the height of a three-story building, or about 30 feet. Pennington said it supplied much-needed nourishment for local cattle grazing under the Nevada sun.

“Bone dry,” he said. “If that would have had water in it, you would have heard a pronounced, loud splash.”

Pennington, hired by the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority to monitor groundwater levels, has documented a disturbing pattern: underground water sources are dwindling and even disappearing altogether near the Silver Peak lithium mine, which records show has pumped nearly four billion gallons of water from underground every year since 2020. The Silver Peak mine denied it is impacting freshwater aquifers, but Pennington said the evidence he recorded shows otherwise.

Hydrologist Nyle Pennington examines dry wells in Silver Peak, Nev., on Oct. 16, 2023 for the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority. Over several years, Pennington has documented at least two wells drying up and believes the nearby Silver Peak lithium mine is to blame. (John Leos / Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

Silver Peak, which began mining lithium in the 1960s, won’t remain the only U.S. lithium mine for long. The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University has documented a surge of proposals to open new lithium mines that will, like Silver Peak, need billions of gallons of water to operate at a time when much of America’s West is still emerging from a recent megadrought.

As part of a Biden administration push to “build America’s electric future,” U.S. officials are encouraging the domestic expansion of lithium mines by dangling federal incentives. The effort would decrease U.S. reliance on China, which controls most of the U.S. supply chain for the lithium, a crucial mineral needed to power computers and military night-vision goggles.

The Howard Center launched a comprehensive, national investigation of the impact the proposed new lithium mines predicted they will have on U.S. water supplies. Reporters reviewed tens of thousands of pages of state and federal environmental impact statements and mining operation reports filed by companies involved in every proposed lithium project in the U.S. that sought permits or reached the physical exploration phase by the end of December 2023.

Among the investigation’s key findings:

  • There are no federal rules governing how much water any type of mine can consume.
  • America’s only operating commercial lithium mine is responsible for drying up nearby monitoring wells, according to reports from Nevada’s largest water authority.
  • The vast majority of proposed lithium projects responding to calls for increased supplies of domestic lithium are, in fact, owned by foreign companies or their subsidiaries.
  • The majority of proposed lithium projects in the U.S. intend to take water from already stressed sources like the Colorado River or strained groundwater systems.
  • Federal authority to stop mines from extracting minerals, even from public land, is weak. The Department of the Interior, in more than 20 years, has not rejected a mining permit due to the harm a mine could cause.
  • The federal government approved plans for a future lithium mine, even after its operators disclosed it would create 272 million metric tons of ‘tailings’ containing toxic waste.

A water intensive process

Lithium can form naturally in salty underground waters, hard rock or clay. No matter where lithium sits or how it is mined, extracting it uses a lot of water. One mining method involves evaporating mineral-heavy water to get the lithium. Another method gets to the lithium by blasting through hard rock and digging an open pit. Both methods need a combination of fresh water and toxic chemicals to extract lithium.

Why does lithium use so much water?

Extracting lithium from the salty, mineral-rich water in brine aquifers is a water-intensive process that poses risks to groundwater levels and can create other environmental problems.

Despite their intense water needs, plans for lithium mines are popping up in some of America’s most water-stressed areas like the Clayton Valley Basin in western Nevada. Other projects plan to take billions of gallons of fresh water every year from the already overtaxed Colorado River.

In some cases, corporations hoping to get in on the boom are seeking public money to open lithium mines by tapping billion dollar low-interest loans and grants from the recently enacted bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.

No federal rules for mines and water

The main federal law governing mines, and how they operate, is more than 150 years old. It was enacted a few years after the Civil War. Government auditors for decades have flagged its many flaws that leave water and the environment unprotected.

If all of the 72 proposed lithium mines whose documents the Howard Center examined are built under current rules, “it would be a fundamental transformation of the American West,” said Patrick Donnelly, a conservation biologist for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group. “People compare it to the Gold Rush, but the Gold Rush was pretty small scale, compared to what all this lithium’s looking like.”

Nevada, America’s driest state, is home to 40 of the 72 proposed lithium mines whose paperwork the Howard Center examined. The vast majority of those in Nevada — 80 percent — would be built on top of water supplies identified by the Nevada Division of Water Resources as already designated for special monitoring because of possible risk to their water levels, according to the Howard Center’s analysis.

But the 72 proposed lithium mines examined are not just in the West. In North Carolina, residents worried that a proposed lithium mine might cause residential wells to run dry. Proposed mine operators in Arkansas, as in Nevada, want to pull mineral-heavy water from the drier parts of the state.

Warning signs from Silver Peak?

At the Silver Peak lithium mine, the only place in the U.S. where scientists can learn about the impact of active lithium mining on water and the surrounding environment, annual reports from the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority have repeatedly warned of problems. The authority is a unit of local government that works across nine counties. Its 2022-23 groundwater monitoring program annual report concluded that decreases in local water levels near Silver Peak were “due exclusively to de-watering throughout Clayton Valley for Lithium Mining purposes.”

The Howard Center reporters repeatedly offered to meet in person with representatives of the Silver Peak operation or its owner Albemarle, based in North Carolina and one of the world’s top producers of lithium. The Howard Center said via email it intended to ask about how “local scientists at the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority have identified groundwater monitoring wells near the Silver Peak mine as having reduced amounts of water (or running dry), and they believe the Silver Peak mine is playing a part in what is happening to the water.” The Howard Center invited a “transparent and open conversation.”

After more than 20 emails, texts and calls from Howard Center reporters over a one-month period offering to fly to the Nevada mine or Albemarle’s corporate headquarters in North Carolina, the company offered a Zoom interview with a “hard stop” at 10 minutes. Silver Peak’s site operations manager, Scott Thibodeaux, was designated to speak to the reporters. But he said he was unable to answer key questions.

“I’m not familiar with the particulars,” Thibodeaux said, referring to concerns raised by the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority for at least the past decade. “Perhaps someone within the organization is. I am not myself.” Thibodeaux said he is responsible for overseeing mining and the processing of lithium at the Silver Peak lithium mine. That means he oversees key parts of the operation that consume large amounts of water.

One day after the Zoom interview, Albemarle spokesperson Allison Eckley issued a statement that said in part and in bold: “Albemarle operations do not impact the freshwater aquifers in the area.”

Yet a February 2023 environmental disclosure filed by Albemarle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission includes a section on the operation’s “Requirements” to use what the report labels as “Fresh Water,” in an amount equivalent to 190 million to 222 million gallons per year.

Asked about that in a follow-up email, Eckley acknowledged fresh water is used by the operation and that usage is “not expected to increase significantly” by 2025. Eckley said in a separate email that Albemarle plans to increase pumping of salty, lithium-rich water by more than 50% from 2020 to a new level equivalent to 6.5 billion gallons a year by the end of 2025.

Fissures have opened up in the ground near Albemarle’s lithium mine in Silver Peak, Nev., as seen on Oct. 14, 2023. Fissures and sinkholes can develop when underground water levels drop. (John Leos / Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

Central Nevada Regional Water Authority Executive Director Jeff Fontaine and University of Nevada Las Vegas professor of hydrology Dr. David Kreamer said pumping too much salty water from a complex, underground ecosystem can harm freshwater aquifers.

Fontaine said overpumping any basin can cause “permanent” damage underground and “a combination of things that happens that would prevent that aquifer from ever really restoring itself.”

Albemarle’s Eckley said the company is allowed to expand pumping, according to its permits. In an email, she wrote, “It is the responsibility of the State Engineer to administer the groundwater resources in the basin to avoid permanent effects.”

Albemarle did not directly address the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority’s reports or findings of diminishing water levels in the network of independent monitoring wells.

“There are no negative impacts to the quality” of the freshwater aquifer that is uphill from the mine, Eckley said, citing data from one monitoring well Albemarle owns.

Pennington, the hydrologist, said it is not the quality, but rather the quantity of depleted fresh water that is significant.

“We have the data to back it up,” he said, citing decades of recordings showing steady groundwater levels until more recently. Pennington said Albemarle could more accurately monitor its impact on water by seeking out all available monitoring data, including from sources other than the one Albemarle well Eckley cited. Pennington said the Round Mountain Gold Corporation is a company Albemarle could emulate. Its local gold mine is “pretty much saturated with observation wells,” he said. One well he visits sends data in real-time to the state engineer’s office, making the information publicly accessible, he said.

“Albemarle should set up their own observation system that would become transparent” to state, federal and any local entity that wishes to monitor the water supplies in Clayton Valley, he said.

Water evaporates over months across more than 4,000 acres of ponds in Silver Peak, Nev., as seen on Oct. 13, 2023. Left behind is a white, lithium-rich material. The Silver Peak mine is owned by Albemarle and is the only commercial lithium mine operating in the United States. (John Leos / Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

State water data reviewed by the Howard Center shows that increasing pumping of lithium-rich water to 6.5 billion gallons, as Eckley said was planned, would push the Clayton Valley Basin to its limits, or beyond. State data already has shown that mineral-heavy water has been allocated for use beyond what is available. Albemarle’s own disclosure to the SEC shows that if the company follows through and increases pumping to 6.5 billion gallons a year, the basin will be “pumped at or over” the amount that naturally recharges every year.

“Obviously there’s a huge stress on the system,” Nevada State Engineer Adam Sullivan said of all the groundwater consumed by the mine so far. Sullivan has not looked into the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority’s conclusion that the lithium mine is to blame for dwindling groundwater but said “it would be something worth considering if you try to explain the cause.”

“I think the alarm bells have been rung,” said Fontaine. “I think there are a lot of people concerned about what’s happening in Clayton Valley, but I don’t know that there’s agreement on what needs to be done.”

Fontaine, Kreamer and State Engineer Sullivan all said groundwater data needs to be updated.

Sullivan said he has “initiated a major effort,” in coordination with the United States Geological Survey, to update water availability data in Nevada using state-of-the-art science. The project, called the Water Resource Initiative, will include projections taking climate change and other factors into account but is contingent upon funding. Pennington said updating the state’s older water data “is probably what needs to be done in Clayton Valley.”

Federal funding goes abroad

The vast majority of proposed lithium projects responding to calls to increase domestic supplies of lithium in the U.S. are, in fact, owned by foreign companies or their subsidiaries.

The nation’s push to create more domestic sources of lithium has attracted many investors and companies, the majority of them from abroad. The Howard Center found that just 17 of the 72 proposals reviewed by reporters are from companies based in the U.S. The rest are headquartered internationally, with the majority in Australia and Canada.

“[They] are doing business through a front group, a subsidiary here in the United States, but essentially not paying royalties, [and are] exporting our resources and jeopardizing our primary resource for life, which is water,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat.

In Nevada, there are 28 planned lithium mines within 50 miles of the Silver Peak lithium mine that are owned by companies based outside of the United States, a Howard Center analysis found. Esmeralda County Commissioner De Winsor, a Republican, is trying to have his community’s voice heard amid the lithium rush.

“These mining companies, they come in and they don’t belong to the area,” Winsor said. “They’re from Australia or they’re from Canada or they’re from some other country and they don’t give a damn about the communities or the water sources.”

The U.S. government is considering giving large low-interest loans and grants to boost lithium mine construction. Many foreign companies have applied, the Howard Center found.

Canada-based Lithium Americas, which has never operated a mine in the United States, is asking for a record $1 billion low-interest loan from the Department of Energy to fund construction for lithium extraction from U.S. public lands in Nevada. Lithium Americas has signed agreements with its largest shareholder, General Motors, which it said will allow the carmaker to use its lithium from Nevada and build batteries in the United States.

Yet, Lithium Americas acknowledged nothing would stop General Motors from taking the American-made batteries and shipping them south of the border, where they could create or keep jobs at General Motors’ electric vehicle production facility in Mexico.

“It’s absolutely possible — they could absolutely do that,” said Tim Crowley, an executive with both Lithium Nevada Corp. and its parent company, Lithium Americas.

An electric vehicle charging station is illuminated at dusk on Sep. 9, 2023 in northern Nevada on the way to the Thacker Pass lithium mine. Lithium-ion batteries are needed to power electric cars, and President Biden has set a goal that by 2030 half of vehicles sold in the U.S. will be electric. (Noel Lyn Smith / Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

A senior official at the White House who asked not to be named told the Howard Center that the Biden administration does not think General Motors will do that, saying the automaker also invested billions to expand electric vehicle production facilities in the U.S.

However, GM said in an email to the Howard Center the company does plan to use the lithium it obtains from Lithium Americas outside of the U.S. as part of a “broader strategy we have to establish a North America-based supply chain for raw and processed material for EV batteries and other EV components like permanent magnets and motors.”

The GM spokesperson, James Cain, confirmed that lithium from the Nevada project operated by Lithium Americas will end up in three U.S.-based battery cell plants before going on to “supply GM assembly plants across the United States, Canada and Mexico.”

The United Auto Workers Union criticized General Motors’ $1 billion investment in Mexico in 2021 for electric vehicles, saying the company should keep as many jobs in the U.S. as possible. GM announced in early December that the first new units of the all-electric Chevy Blazer EVs were solely produced at its Ramos Arizpe plant in Mexico.

In early January 2023, the Mexican government announced on Twitter, now known as “X”, that Mexican Secretary of Economy Raquel Buenrostro had met with GM to discuss the company’s plans to convert its Ramos Arizpe facility to produce only EVs by 2024. The social media post cited thousands of Mexican jobs that could benefit from GM’s investment.

A damming federal approval

On Nevada’s northern border with Oregon, Lithium Nevada Corp., a subsidiary of Lithium Americas, is developing the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project. The project is an open pit mine. In 2021, the company received approval from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, part of the Department of the Interior, to open the lithium mine — after disclosing that it will create 272 million metric tons of toxic clay tailings and salt during its expected 40-year lifespan.

Lithium Americas’ proposed mine in Thacker Pass, Nev. can be seen under construction on Sep. 9, 2023. This will be the first mine in the world to extract lithium from clay. (John Leos / Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

The tailings, the mine’s waste product, will be a tan, toxic and muddy slurry of metals and radioactive material, according to the mine’s environmental impact statement filed with the Bureau of Land Management.

A mine’s tailings can exist for centuries and require ongoing treatment and containment to prevent water and soil contamination. Lithium Nevada Corp. plans to use a new method to store the mine’s toxic tailings that compacts them and squeezes out much of the moisture. In theory that would make them more stable and less likely to collapse. The company will not build a dam around the tailings to prevent them from spilling out of their prepared containment area, as is common practice. Instead, the mine will place them on top of a plastic liner.

Environmentalists, such as the non-profit Great Basin Resource Watch, said the moisture content of the planned stack is underestimated. The clay from Thacker Pass is more likely to retain and soak up the moisture it was dug up with, and then become muddier and less stable and at greater risk of collapse, according to hydrologist and tailings expert Steven Emerman. This will be the first time a process like this is used with clay ore, compared to other mines that compress hard rock and ore. Emerman, who studied the mine’s tailings pile plan for the Great Basin Resource Watch, is concerned this will increase risk of collapse and severe damage in Nevada.

A research article published in Engineering Geology, a peer-reviewed international science journal, concluded toxic materials released during a tailings collapse can travel hundreds of miles, contaminating rivers and lakes and poisoning nearby land. The report examined tailings from previous mines that used different containment plans than Thacker Pass will use.

Centuries of harm from tailings

America’s transition to green energy doesn’t just threaten water levels. Soil and water quality are also at risk of contamination from toxic waste that can leak from mine tailings.

One 2019 tailings dam collapse in Brazil resulted in the release of 10 million cubic meters of mine waste that traveled downstream and killed 270 people. Those mines used different storage methods than are planned for Thacker Pass. The article estimated that the economic impact of a major tailings dam failure could be between $750 million and $56 billion because of likely social and environmental damage.

But Crowley, the government and community relations executive for Lithium Americas and Lithium Nevada Corp., said there is “no risk” of collapse at the tailings stack at Thacker Pass, even if an earthquake or big storm were to strike the area. Crowley said that legal challenges to the plan by environmentalists with the Great Basin Resource Watch have failed at both federal and state levels.

“Their concerns have been dismissed as being invalid,” Crowley said.

Crowley said the company’s plans were approved by the U.S. government. He said the company will comply with a Nevada law requiring it to install a double liner under its tailings to prevent leaks from the mine’s toxic waste.

But skeptics said that may not matter. “One of the rules of mining is that all liners leak,” said David Chambers, president of the Center for Science in Public Participation, a group which monitors the effects of water quality contamination linked to mining. The nonprofit provides training and technical advice to grassroots groups on water pollution and natural resource issues.

Not prepared for the boom

For the last 150 years — thanks to a 19th century mining law still governing American mines — minerals such as lithium buried under public land have been up for grabs to the first person or corporation that “claims” them.

Frank Bain, a geologist with 45 years of experience, has staked claim after claim in New Mexico and across the Southwest, selling many of them to larger companies hoping to join America’s lithium rush.

“Lithium is how I feed my family,” Bain said. “I want to go out here to drill one hole, make a discovery, sell my interests out and retire. That’s my whole goal here.”

En route to check on his lithium claims, geologist Frank Bain poses for a photograph (left) in front of a gate in Lordsburg, N.M., on Nov. 13, 2023. Bain owns 225 mining claims of lithium across 4,500 acres, which are marked with four-feet high stakes (right). (Tori Gantz / Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

The Mining Law of 1872 provided Bain, and the companies operating mines on federal lands, the right to mine for lithium, the Howard Center found.

The process is relatively simple. Prove valuable minerals exist in the ground. Drive a wooden stake into the site that contains those minerals. File some paperwork and pay one-time fees totaling $390 to the Bureau of Land Management. The steps allow any legal corporation with paperwork filed in any state, U.S. citizens, or immigrants who intend to become a citizen to ‘claim’ the potentially lucrative underground minerals on up to 20 acres of land. To keep the claim, they only pay an annual $165 fee.

There is no requirement for the claim holder to pay royalties on any portion of the money earned from selling any minerals taken from under federal land. Instead, they keep both the minerals and the money for themselves, a practice criticized for nearly 50 years by the Government Accountability Office.

“The mining companies don’t need to ask. They just take. That’s what the 1872 law allows,” said Aaron Mintzes, senior policy counsel for Earthworks, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy organization.

The Department of the Interior said that it cannot deny a mine the right to operate unless environmental damage caused by mining is found to have gone beyond what is deemed necessary for extraction of minerals. Because mining inherently involves disturbing the earth, the legal standard has proven hard to violate and the department rarely stops a mine outright. The Howard Center asked the Department of the Interior to name the last time it denied any kind of mine’s permit to operate due to the damage it could cause. The answer: a project proposed in 1994 and denied in 2001. Even then, that case involved desecration of tribal lands, not environmental harm. The department, which reviews dozens of mining applications every year, said it will typically try to work with mines to help them comply.

The limits on the federal government’s authority to step in and prevent damage from a mine came into full view in 2022 during testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

“Under the mining law, if there is a discovery of a valuable mineral, there is a right to mine. So there can’t be a complete shutdown of the mining operation,” Interior’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Steve Feldgus testified.

As a result, companies proposing lithium mines on federal land can openly disclose they will use billions of gallons of water and be virtually guaranteed that the federal government will not stop them. That leaves it up to a patchwork of local ordinances and state laws, Democratic staff members of the House Committee on Natural Resources said, to protect some of the most stressed water sources in the country.

Mining water

The majority of proposed lithium projects in the U.S. intend to take water from already stressed sources like the Colorado River, or groundwater systems designated by state officials as already needing close monitoring, according to a Howard Center analysis.

Three lithium projects near southern California plan to tap the lithium bubbling up from superheated, mineral-heavy waters under the Salton Sea. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has called the area “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

In this photo provided by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Colorado River flows between sandstone cliffs. Several lithium mines, including three projects in Imperial Valley, Calif., have announced plans to draw billions of gallons of fresh water from the stressed river every year. (Courtesy of the BUREAU OF RECLAMATION)

Automakers Ford, General Motors and Stellantis invested in two projects proposed for the Salton Sea. In state and local records reviewed by the Howard Center, the applicants who are seeking to open the mines disclosed to regulators their plans to use nearly 3 billion gallons of water a year. That would enable them to obtain enough lithium to power batteries for about 4.9 million electric vehicles annually, the applicants estimated. The companies will not source the water from within California. Instead, they plan to use a source that relies on man-made canals, a temporary pipeline and large trucks to transport the water from one of the most stressed waterways in America: the Colorado River. A third Salton Sea project from BHE Renewables has yet to disclose where it will find fresh water, and it has not disclosed the amount it will need.

The Colorado River provides seven states and parts of Mexico with water, hydropower, recreation and wildlife habitats. Forty million people rely on the river for some, if not all, of their water. The river endured a 21-year “megadrought” from 2000 to 2021 that forced the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the river, to declare a water shortage for the first time.

California regulators have issued permits for EnergySource Mineral’s Project ATLiS to extract lithium at the Salton Sea. The company, based in Carlsbad, Calif., disclosed it expects to use more than 1 billion gallons of Colorado River water annually. Controlled Thermal Resources, a company that began in Australia but moved its headquarters to California in 2022, plans to consume 2.1 billion gallons of fresh water each year. That is enough to provide water from the strained Colorado River for 22,500 households downstream in Arizona. The company forecasts it will need to use nearly 100 billion gallons of fresh water over the project’s life, which could be as long as 46 years.

“When you put it in terms of gallons, it does sound like a lot of water — and it is a lot of water,” Controlled Thermal Resources President Jim Turner told The Howard Center.

In California, agriculture takes more water out of the river annually than the proposed lithium projects will take. But Turner acknowledged mining’s planned draws of water are still large enough to warrant concerted efforts by the company to conserve as much as possible.

“We’re going to try to do the best conservation effort we can on the use of that water,” Turner said.

Controlled Thermal Resources is planning to take the steam produced from its mining process and condense some of it back into fresh water, Turner said. EnergySource Minerals also has “an element of water recycling” throughout their lithium extraction process, according to Chief Development Officer David Deak.

U.S.-based EnergySource Mineral’s test plant extracts lithium and geothermal energy from underneath the Salton Sea in California. The company is fully permitted and expects to begin lithium extraction here by 2025 (Source: EnergySource Minerals).

But even in a future drought, water will still be available for his company’s project because of legal agreements California water brokers made, in some cases, nearly 100 years ago, Turner said.

“Every entity that wants to use water off the river executes an agreement. And so typically those agreements have a hierarchy,” he said. “But at the end of the day, if there’s not enough water, typically, what would happen is whoever was last executing the agreement, they may end up having to reduce their water first.”

The people that would be forced to reduce first would be those living downstream in Southwestern states such as Arizona. EnergySource Minerals and Controlled Thermal Resources told California state regulators that, in a future drought, the projects would still have access to the billions of gallons of Colorado River water they need. Both used the same explanation in their separate state environmental impact reviews: “Due to the priority of water rights and other agreements, drought affecting Colorado River water supplies causes shortages for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, but not California.”

The Howard Center asked Deak, the executive at EnergySource Minerals, how Arizonans should react to those statements.

“It is difficult for me to speak on behalf of Arizona,” Deak said. “To be candid, I don’t really have a straight answer.” Deak stressed that his company’s mine would have “a fraction” of the impact on the river when compared to agriculture users.

50 years of failures, but solutions are lurking

For nearly a half century, federal government auditors have pointed out flaws with the archaic 1872 mining law that governs how mines operate. Members of Congress have repeatedly tried — and failed — to substantially reform the law.

The Government Accountability Office has released at least six reports over the last several decades highlighting such problems as the lack of requirements to protect the environment, and loopholes that allow companies to extract minerals from public lands without paying royalties to American taxpayers. A 1974 GAO report said the 1872 Mining Law needed to be updated. The report recommended transitioning from a system of staking claims to one where public land and its minerals would be leased. Mining companies, in this system, would reimburse taxpayers for using public resources.

That has not materialized. A bill now pending — the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act — addresses that issue nearly 50 years later.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-AZ, has represented communities in Arizona in Congress since 2003. Grijalva supports changes in the regulation of mines and serves on the House Natural Resources Committee. (Handout from Rep. Grijalva official website)

“We’re operating under an antiquated law of 1872 which gives mining companies and their corporations all the authority and really handcuffs the federal government, and to some extent local governments and state governments, handcuffs them in their ability to be able to mitigate, to change, to prioritize and to say no,” said Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat spearheading the bill in the House of Representatives. “Sometimes you have to say no. There are areas in which that should not happen, not only because of the threat of water, but other environmental issues as well.”

Grijalva’s bill also includes a provision that would require the Department of the Interior to check that any proposed mine would be in an area with enough water to support it.

With only Democrats backing his bill to date, its outcome is uncertain. There are members of Grijalva’s own party who do not support his vision for change. Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto, a Nevada Democrat, has introduced a bill that, instead, would strengthen the rights of the mining companies to use public lands to support their mining operations even if that land has no valuable minerals.

There is broad, bipartisan agreement that the domestic supply chain for critical minerals needs to be strengthened, but Republicans and Democrats do not agree on how to accomplish this. Republicans have put forward legislation that would streamline the process for permitting mines, while opposing Grijalva’s reforms.

In 2022, the Department of the Interior launched an interagency working group with representatives across the federal government to propose ways to modernize the 1872 law. In September, the group issued more than 60 recommendations that would “update our mining policies and promote the sustainable and responsible domestic production of critical minerals,” said Tommy Beaudreau, Interior’s deputy secretary, in a press release.

The only recommendation about water from the interagency working group suggests that Congress pass a law allowing regulators to deny a permit for a mine “that is likely to require perpetual treatment of water relating to any aspect of mining operations.”

I hope that the Howard Center and the reporting that has been done, I hope it has an impact — a significant impact,” Grijalva said.

But the working group’s proposals face an uphill battle in Congress. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, issued a statement criticizing the recommendations as “reckless.” The reforms, the statement said, “will force us to buy more critical minerals from mines using forced and child labor instead of harnessing our abundant resources here at home.”

Grijalva said the Howard Center’s investigation, shining a spotlight on public disclosures from lithium mines that plan to draw on billions of gallons of water from strained sources, could help attract more bipartisan support for reforms, in light of recent history-making droughts.

“I hope that the Howard Center and the reporting that has been done, I hope it has an impact — a significant impact,” Grijalva said. “This kind of reporting and study and investigation is critical to the discussion by introducing and prioritizing the issue of water as a consequence going forward.”

Leaving it to the locals

With attempts to strengthen federal oversight so far unsuccessful, states and local governments are filling the gaps — with mixed results.

In California, Newsom signed into law the Lithium Extraction Excise Tax, which requires companies to pay the state government a tax on any lithium pulled from underground in California. Most of the tax revenue would go to the local government near the projects. The federal government does not require companies to pay a tax on lithium extracted from public land, although the interagency working group recommended such compensation to U.S. taxpayers.

In March, the Utah legislature passed HB 513, an attempt to protect the shrinking Great Salt Lake from mining. Among other provisions, the measure, signed by the governor, requires mining companies that take water from the lake to put back roughly the same amount of water. While the new law has discouraged one lithium mine that intended to draw large amounts of water from the lake, another project has since said it created new technology that will allow it to meet the law’s requirements.

“We don’t want to end up like Owens Lake or the Caspian Sea,” said State Rep. Casey Snider, the Utah Republican who sponsored the bill. The Caspian Sea is Earth’s largest inland body of water and, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has seen its water levels drop significantly since the 1990s.

Esmeralda County Commissioner De Winsor during an interview in Silver Peak, Nev., on Oct. 13, 2023. Winsor has noticed land sinking around the town for years and believes it could be related to the Silver Peak lithium mine owned by Albemarle — America’s only operating lithium mine. (John Leos / Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

In North Carolina, the Gaston County Board of Commissioners is pushing back against a mining company’s plans to build a lithium mine that county officials and residents said might cause residential water wells to dry up.

“I’m not saying they can’t do it here. But if they’re going to do it in Gaston County, they’re going to do it right,” said Chad Brown, the Republican chairman of the county board of commissioners. “And they’re going to get it right beforehand to where the citizens are not going to be affected by environmental issues. Not water. Not air. Not blasting.”

In Nevada, the Silver Peak lithium mine has proposed pumping more water, and a Howard Center analysis found 28 other planned lithium mines located within 50 miles of Silver Peak. The government in rural Esmeralda County would face expenses far beyond what it can afford if it wants to fight the proposals.

According to Winsor, the Esmeralda County commissioner, the county has a budget of only $30,000 for 2023 to defend itself against companies vying to open new lithium mines, as well as Albemarle, the Silver Peak operator. The multi-billion dollar company’s revenues increased from $3.3 billion in 2020 to nearly $10 billion in 2022.

“The community needs the water,” said Winsor. “They don’t need to take away from our area to be able to produce green energy. We should be able to survive.”

Reporters in alphabetical order are Alex Appel, Morgan Casey, Francesca D’Annunzio, Tori Gantz, Jordan Gerard, John Leos, Anna Montoya-Gaxiola, Emma Peterson, Joshua Shimkus, Noel Lyn Smith, Pacey Smith-Garcia, Daisy Tanner, Caitlin Thompson, Annika Tourlas and Shelby Rae Wills.

Nevada Supreme Court issues major water ruling

The headwaters of the Muddy River, a tributary of the Colorado River, take their form with water invisible to us. They start with groundwater. The Muddy River, as it charts its course to Lake Mead, relies on groundwater-fed springs as its primary supply. And for the last two decades, those springs have faced the threat of groundwater overuse. Image courtesy of Daniel Rothberg.

Republished by permission of Daniel Rothberg, from his Substack newsletter.

Like so many rivers in the dry Southwest, the Muddy River is stretched thin. For more than a century, it has been divided up with some water rights “vested” (meaning they predate Nevada’s statutory scheme for regulating water use). Las Vegas currently has rights to a portion of the river, using it to boost its Colorado River supply. The springs feeding the Muddy River support an ecosystem that includes the rare Moapa Dace, an endemic species that despite many threats to its habitat over the years, persists today.

The river was allocated first. Then the groundwater feeding it was allocated separately and later. And in a story that repeats itself over and over across the West, the state of Nevada issued more rights to use groundwater than there was water to go around because if too much groundwater is pumped, it could deplete the springs feeding the Muddy, with cascading effects on people and wildlife that rely on water being there.

But it was not at all clear how Nevada water law would handle this kind of issue. For years, groundwater and surface water were managed as separate sources, despite the fact that the science showed they were connected. In addition, the state made choices about water rights based on boundaries of aquifers that were drawn in the 1960s. The maps, however, often did a subpar job of showing how water actually flowed beneath the surface, as science and the understanding of groundwater has evolved since then.

This all came to a head when Coyote Springs (which planned to move forward with a master-planned community outside Las Vegas) looked to pump more water from the area. The state and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which controls water rights on the Muddy River, raised concerns. It led to years of proceedings and a ruling from the state, Order 1309, that recognized the changing science of how water flowed in the area, known as the Lower White River Flow System, and how much was there.

The order did not take action but it offered a baseline:

  • It recognized the connection between the effects of groundwater pumping on the flows of the Muddy River. That groundwater and the river here are connected.
  • It found the decades-old basin boundaries that the state used to allocate water rights in the area did not capture the full extent of the Lower White River Flow System. It found that groundwater moved in what some call a “superbasin.”
  • It determined that the available amount of water to pump was about 8,000 acre-feet, far lower than the ~30,000 permitted rights the state had issued in the past.

Taken together, the order was poised to change the status quo for how water might be managed in an area (and other areas) where many varied interests had water rights: the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Coyote Springs, NV Energy, Republic Services, Lincoln County Water District, the Apex Holding Company, the Moapa Valley Water District, the city of North Las Vegas, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Multiple parties appealed the ruling (or at least certain parts of it), and a district court judge ruled in 2022 that the state engineer, Nevada’s top water regulator, exceeded his authority. In a unanimous order Thursday that could have far-reaching implications for how water is managed in Nevada, the Supreme Court concluded the opposite.

The Supreme Court order affirms broad authority for the state over groundwater.

The court found that the state “has authority to conjunctively manage surface waters and groundwater and to jointly administer multiple basins and thus was empowered to issue Order 1309.” The justices are effectively saying that state regulators have the ability to view surface water and groundwater as a single source and can redraw the map to reflect how groundwater actually flows under the surface. That’s a huge deal.

The justices pointed to multiple parts of the state’s statutes, emphasizing at times the doctrine of prior appropriation, a guiding concept of Western water law. The doctrine states that those who received water first in time are first to receive water in times of a shortage. The justices said statutes give the state authority to prevent groundwater pumping from conflicting with “vested” river rights, such as those along the Muddy.

And if the science shows that groundwater and surface water act as one source, the state should be able to act upon the data, regardless of how past maps were drawn.

“If the best available science indicates that groundwater and surface water in the [Lower White River Flow System] are interrelated and that appropriations from one reduces the flow of the other, then the State Engineer should manage these rights together based on a shared source of supply,” Justice Patricia Lee wrote in the ruling.

Why this matters: It might sound technical and boring, but this decision could have major ramifications for how water is managed in the Great Basin in the 21st Century.

For one, it gives Nevada’s top water regulator the clear authority and legal certainty in managing the depletion of groundwater in Nevada. It also recognizes that rights are conditions and the state is able to adjust its decisions as the science evolves — if the use of water is going to harm the water rights of others or the public interest.

From the Amargosa River outside of Las Vegas to the Humboldt River in the north, there are clear connections between groundwater pumping and its effect on surface water flows. This decision supports the state engineer’s authority to do something about it. All eyes are on the Humboldt River, where irrigators in Lovelock have long raised concerns about groundwater pumping for agriculture and mining upstream.

It’s noteworthy too as it resolves, at least for now, an ongoing tension that played out in the legislature last year. Lawmakers attempted to clarify the state’s ability to follow the best available science and recognize hydrologic connections. The effort did not make it very far, amid opposition from business groups and developers. Today, the Nevada Supreme Court said that the existing law already gave the state that ability.

Though I did pick up a neat sticker from watching the whole thing…

Some nerdy water memorabilia from the legislative session. Image: Daniel Rothberg

The order also includes notable language around the role of the state in balancing wildlife protections and the “public interest.” In addition to emphasizing “vested” rights and prior appropriation, the court also emphasized the role of state regulators in determining whether water applications are “detrimental to the public interest.”

There remain many major unanswered questions. The ruling outlines what the state can do but it does not contemplate how the state should manage groundwater and surface water together. What does conjunctive management actually look like?

And it’s important to note that the lawsuit is not over. The parties in the case must go back to the district court. Now that the question of the state’s authority is cleared up, parties must argue that the state relied on substantial evidence in making its decision.

What really affects hunting in the West

A landscape photograph of a large meadow, with deer visible in the high grass

A landscape photograph of a large meadow, with deer visible in the high grass
Deer in high grass near Paonia, Colorado. Photo courtesy P.J. Briscoe

A disgruntled hunter wrote a Writers on the Range opinion recently about Westerners getting fed up with the many out-of-staters coming in and buying up draw licenses to shoot bull elk, deer, bear and other big game animals.

As a hunter myself, I understand their frustration.

But reducing non-resident tags, as Andrew Carpenter suggests, takes us in the wrong direction. The greatest threat to hunting now and in the future is the loss of habitat.

Private lands provide up to 80% of habitat for all wildlife species, including critical winter range that’s the limiting factor for most big game populations. Yet these family farms and ranches are struggling for economic survival and in many places are under immense development pressure.

According to the American Farmland Trust, Colorado is on track to lose approximately a half-million acres of open land in the next two decades. Other states have similarly alarming projections. As these lands disappear, so does the wildlife they support.

Income generated by providing access and outfitting services to out-of-state hunters is one of the few economic lifelines keeping ranches and habitat intact.

As New Mexico rancher Jack Diamond explained, “Without non-resident hunters, we couldn’t survive at this point in the ranching business. I don’t want to see this place subdivided, but we’d have to consider that as a last resort.”

David Olde, also a rancher from New Mexico, concurred: “We ended up with so many elk that we had to reduce our cattle. If I can’t sell hunts, what can I do — turn it into ranchettes?”

For the fourth-generation Bramwell family ranch in Colorado, hunting income is an integral part of their operation.

“Our out-of-state clients have been coming here to hunt for generations,” Darla Bramwell said. “These migratory animals do not care whose grass they are eating or whose fences they tear down as they come from forest lands to eat in our hay meadows at night. Without the income from the non-resident hunters, something would have to give.”

Most states already heavily favor resident hunters, both in draw quotas and license fees. In Colorado, for example, residents are now allocated 75% of licenses while non-residents receive only 25%. Further, non-residents typically pay hundreds of dollars more per license than residents. In Colorado a resident bull elk tag is $61. A non-resident bull elk tag costs $760.

Several things happen when non-resident licenses are further reduced. First, it squeezes the bottom line of family farms and ranches that support wildlife and depend on hunting for a portion of their income.

Second, it harms local livelihoods and rural economies. Visiting hunters outspend resident hunters by a large margin, supporting local restaurants, hotels, stores, outfitting services and the local tax base in rural communities.

As Bramwell said, “When our out-of-state hunters come here, they not only support our family but they support our community. They buy local gifts, food, fuel, lodging, meat processing and taxidermy work.”

Diamond’s operation supports between seven to 10 guides from August through December. “These are good-paying jobs and the money generated is all spent locally in the two counties we live in,” he said. “We buy gas, propane, groceries. We also pay state gross receipts tax on the entire hunt.”

Third, state wildlife agencies depend on the high license fees they charge out-of-state hunters.

Fourth, the loss of visiting hunters would remove incentives for prospective ranch buyers to invest in conserving and managing land for wildlife.

Finally, it would also mean more hunters crowding public lands and forcing elk to seek refuge on private lands, reducing hunter opportunity and creating a lower-quality hunt experience.

Pulling the economic rug out from under private lands and wildlife isn’t the answer. So, what is a better solution?

We need to increase, not decrease, incentives for landowners to conserve habitat and provide hunting opportunities. We should bolster, not undermine, the role of hunting in supporting agricultural lands and rural economies. And we need to improve wildlife habitat on public lands with better management of our forests and rangelands.

The future of hunting — and wildlife — both depend on landowners and sportsmen working together to sustain our remaining wild and working lands.

A photograph of writer Lesli Allison

Lesli Allison is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring conversation about the West. She is CEO of the Western Landowners Alliance, a West-wide, landowner-led organization that supports working lands, connected landscapes and native species,

Wet winter revved up outdoors adventure in 2023

A landscape photo showing Sierra Nevada mountains covered in snow.

A landscape photo showing Sierra Nevada mountains covered in snow.
Following an epic winter, snow blanketed the Sierra Nevada mountains deep into the summer. Photo by Matt Johanson

Trekking along the top of the Sierra Nevada mountains challenges hikers every summer, but this snow-covered range provides a far greater challenge for skilled mountaineers in winter. 2023 will go down in history as the year summer and winter combined for the hardy few in the Range of Light.

Snow and ice made Pacific Crest Trail a trek to remember

Winter conditions that stretched into August led most Pacific Crest Trail hikers to wisely skip the High Sierra this year, though some 200 PCT overachievers braved the buried mountains in June and July. The hardships and deadly hazards they overcame make a typical PCT journey seem like a walk in the park.

Snow obscured their trail, forcing them to navigate an invisible path. High passes like Forester, Mather and Glen became terrifying ice climbs. Sun cups and slush slowed progress to a crawl, leading hikers to start daily around 3 a.m. when frozen crust provided better footing. Raging water and damaged footbridges made river crossings perilous.

A photograph showing a group of about five hikers using poles to hike uphill through snow in the Sierra Nevada
Pacific Crest Trail hikers power their way up a snowy mountain. Photo by Matt Johanson

To top it off, hikers had to carry backbreaking loads: crampons, ice axes, food, fuel, bear cans, cold-weather clothes, shelters and sleeping bags were all essential. That added up to around 50 pounds, or about three times a typical PCT pack weight.

“Each day tested my limits mentally, physically, and emotionally. I cried. A lot. I fell in rivers. I fell and slid down snow. I was scraped and bruised by countless tree limbs. I had blistered feet. It was not easy out there, but I did it. I hiked through the entire PCT Sierra section in a 300-percent snow year,” shared Moony, who journeys under a trail name like most PCT hikers.

“There are no words for what we have gone through,” declared Refill, who chose some to describe his experience anyway: “Frightening, beautiful, bone-breaking, astonishing, brutal, mind-breaking, pure happiness, and sheer terror. Never before have I done something this extreme, challenging, but also beautiful.”

In a historic and drought-busting winter, California received 247 percent of average snowfall, filling reservoirs to 128 percent of their typical storage. The PCT hikers’ unprecedented High Sierra odyssey was just one result of this wet windfall, the outdoors story of the year.

Ski resorts which often close in April or May stayed open until July or even August. Kayakers and rafters enjoyed the biggest rapids in decades. Even desert areas like Joshua Tree and Death Valley saw rare wildflower blooms, delighting conservationists and nature lovers.

There were significant drawbacks, of course. Flooding, heavy snowfall and high rivers caused dozens of deaths and billions of dollars in damage. But California wildfires burned just 20 percent of average acreage compared with the last five years. Since no one can control the destructive effects of tumultuous weather, this outdoorsman suggests that we might appreciate the beneficial ones, too.

Wildlife making a comeback in 2023

A photograph showing a close-up of around seven orange and black butterflies
Monarch butterflies multiplied their numbers in 2023. Photo courtesy U.S Fish and Wildlife Service

Wildlife made some exciting appearances this year. Monarch butterflies continued their recovery after reaching dangerously low numbers in 2020.

A wolverine traveled through California, caught on camera in both Yosemite and Inyo National Forest, for the first time in 15 years. A beaver pup was spotted in ​​Palo Alto’s Matadero Creek, the Bay Area’s first beaver sighting in decades.

All that plus a pack of at least five gray wolves, an endangered species, has moved into Sequoia National Forest for the first time in a century.

The people of the outdoors

The California Outdoor Hall of Fame inducted surfer Bianca Valenti “because of her prowess as an elite big-wave surfer, proponent of gender equality in professional surfing and inspiration to thousands of women to set aside their fears and paddle into the roiling ocean to surf.”

Valenti founded the Better Wave Foundation to empower outdoor athletes, she volunteers with Brown Girl Surf to promote women and girls of color to surf, and serves as an ambassador for Save the Waves Coalition and Sustainable Surf.

“I’m more inspired than ever to help preserve, protect and conserve the great outdoors,” she said.

The hall also inducted fisherman Gary Coe, fly-fishing guide Jay Fair, and cyclist Alan Kalin, who promoted life-saving traffic improvements on Mount Diablo’s windy summit road. The hall has now honored 84 men and 13 women since its inaugural class in 2002.

Students from kindergarten through eighth grade will get more fresh air under a new California state law that requires schools to allow them 30 minutes outdoors per day. The Legislature passed the measure by a rare bipartisan and unanimous vote.

“The benefits of the unstructured play and peer-to-peer social interactions offered by recess are more important now than ever,” said Sen. Josh Newman, the law’s author.

Some personal highlights

A photograph showing two men smiling at the camera, standing on top of a mountain peak, covered in snow, with another mountain peak shining in the sunshine down below.
Matt Johanson and Kevin Jonaitis approach the summit of Pico de Orizaba, 18,491 feet, Mexico’s highest mountain. Photo courtesy Matt Johanson

Your columnist enjoyed some personal outdoors experiences this year, which is worth sharing. They include cycling through Joshua Tree National Park, trekking in Grand Canyon National Park, and climbing the three highest mountains in Mexico. I was also fortunate to explore the Patagonia mountains of Chile and Argentina for the first time.

More significantly, I managed to complete the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, 26 years after my first PCT hike. The experience taught me more than I expected about human kindness, as practiced by hundreds of selfless trail angels who make such journeys possible.

Trail angels deliver water to the desert, give hikers rides to and from town, host and feed us in their homes and much more. In a world which seems to lack benevolence, they radiate generosity and motivate others to do the same.

After finishing my hike, I jumped at the chance to help my brother lead three friends up Yosemite’s Half Dome this fall. Felipe, Christian and Gama had never climbed the shapely mountain before and were aching to try. Everyone laughed when Dan and I discovered the three had comically overstuffed their packs and we made them unload a pile of unneeded gear. The new climbers grinned from ear to ear as we ascended the cables.

A photograph showing a group of five people posing in front of a large flat granite rock, known as Half Dome.
Leading friends up Half Dome provided an outdoors highlight. Photo courtesy Matt Johanson

When they called their families jubilantly from the summit, I realized this was a lifetime highlight for them, and that helping them achieve it was one for me, too. I’m going to try to give more happiness to others in 2024 and beyond.

Progressives Hope ‘Rural New Deal’ Will Address Economic Issues and Appeal to Voters

A photo showing a rural highway, with a close-up of a worker's hands on the bottom.

A photo showing a rural highway, with a close-up of a worker's hands on the bottom.
Photo courtesy Rural New Deal

Progressive Democrats of America and Rural Urban Bridge Initiative have co-authored a policy paper laying out a set of strategies to revitalize the economy in rural areas through “federal investment in bottom-up solutions.

With input from rural leaders and advocates, the Rural New Deal brings together economic policies that are popular with progressives and tailors them to suit the needs of rural communities.

Democrats have a chance at winning in 2024 if they work to rebuild trust with rural voters, Anthony Flaccavento, director of Rural Urban Bridge Initiative (RUBI), told the Daily Yonder.

“The federal government is proposing this policy template, but every element needs to be organized such that it’s sensitive to the specifics of the regions, that the programs are being applied and that there is local input into how they actually operate at the local level,” Flaccavento said.

The Rural New Deal is made up of 10 overarching economic policy goals, or pillars. These include items such as breaking up corporate monopolies and ensuring livable wages, among others. Each pillar comes with a set of actions that either the federal government or other rural community leaders can take. These range from providing subsidies to small businesses to expanding road and rail infrastructure.

Additionally, the Rural New Deal focuses on other policy areas like sustainable food production, broadband expansion, affordable housing, public education, and healthcare. It calls for measures such as Medicaid and Medicare expansion, investments in vocational training, and free community college.

The release of the policy document comes at a time when the Democratic Party is becoming less competitive in national races, according to Jeff Bloodworth, a professor of political history at Gannon University in Pennsylvania who studies rural elections.

He said the Democrats have increasingly focused their electoral strategy on urban areas since the 1960s, while gradually devoting less attention to rural voters. They performed especially poorly in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, losing the rural vote to Republicans by more than 20 percentage points in both.

Progressive candidates like Pennsylvania U.S. Senator John Fetterman and former Maine State Senator Chloe Maxmin won their seats after years of organizing in their states’ rural communities. But Democrats as a whole often don’t run candidates in rural areas, especially at the state and local level, Bloodworth said.

“Half the state legislative seats in Mississippi, the Democrats don’t even run a candidate,” Bloodworth said. “And Mississippi’s not an outlier. Democrats were competitive and controlled the state legislature in Mississippi well into the ’90s they just quit trying. They don’t show up anymore.”

Alan Minsky, the director of Progressive Democrats of America, and Flaccavento view the Rural New Deal as an important step in building a relationship between progressive candidates and rural communities, both during and beyond elections. But they both see potential issues with its implementation. They anticipate Republican opposition to the Rural New Deal’s calls for increased government investment or decreased privatization, as well as lingering biases against rural voters from Democratic politicians and pundits.

Urban progressives have assumptions about how rural Americans vote: that they all vote Republican, that they vote against their own interests, or that they simply don’t care about the same things urban progressives care about. Flaccavento said these assumptions can lead Democrats to dismiss the issues that rural Americans face. Republicans, by contrast, are more likely to try to appeal to rural voters, Minsky said.

“The Republican Party has consistently presented itself as the ally of business and therefore it fits in with this notion of being the party that advocates for pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, do hard work, etc,” he said.

Though Republicans have consistently outperformed Democrats among rural voters in recent elections, rural voters themselves – especially young rural voters – have expressed dissatisfaction with how both parties handle economic issues. Minsky, who remembers Ronald Reagan’s elections in 1980 and 1984, saw how unpopular his administration’s economic policies were among rural workers, policies that are still part of the Republican Party’s platform.

“He really initiated an era of economic policy of not securing and supporting independent businesses and family farmers and allowing the process of corporate monopolization to begin. And then sadly, when you get the Democratic administration coming in ’92, they in no way reverse that,” he said. “In fact, they again acquiesced to the policies for the most part.”

Republicans’ use of “culture war” strategies has also produced mixed results in capturing rural support. In Ohio, a 2013 state constitutional amendment that would have restricted abortion rights failed to attract as much support in rural areas as candidate Donald Trump did in 2020. Similarly, rural Wisconsin voters shifted 5 points to the left in the 2023 election of pro-choice progressive, Janet Protasiewicz, to the state Supreme Court this past April, compared to senatorial and presidential elections.

Flaccavento said that voters’ responses to these strategies are complex and often informed by their material conditions.

“Culture war issues are way more effective in dividing us in large part because people feel abandoned economically,” Flaccavento said. “As Democrats begin to really prioritize the needs of everyday people across geography, but especially in rural, … then it’s much more likely that those other issues will be like, ‘Well, we don’t agree, but that’s OK.’”

Bloodworth added that urban progressives need to understand the nuances of rural political attitudes if they want to get support for policies like the Rural New Deal.

“We should not assume that people in rural America are naturally more conservative…Their liberalism, where they are liberals, has a different sensibility,” Bloodworth said.

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

When it comes to mining on sacred lands, some tribal members say their voices have been overlooked

A photo of a Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation resident standing in front of a trailer home, with a sign that says Defend the Sacred

A photo of a Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation resident standing in front of a trailer home, with a sign that says Defend the Sacred
Dorece Sam is a resident of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, which is located near the Thacker Pass lithium mine project. Credit Alejandra Rubio / Sierra Nevada Ally

Logo of Rural News Network with transparent background

Speaking out: Rural communities of color changing the narrative
The nearly 14 million people of color who live in rural America face unique challenges that run the gamut — from navigating racism in real estate, environmental regulation and the justice system to gaining access to healthcare and broadband. This six-part series from the Rural News Network, made possible with support from the Walton Family Foundation, explores the issues these communities are facing and what some are doing to change their fates.

Bethany Sam feels a spiritual connection to the high desert of northern Nevada.

A member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Kutzadik’a Paiute people, Sam works for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, whose reservation sits just north of Reno, Nevada.

It’s about 200 miles from what could be the country’s largest natural deposit of lithium, a critical mineral suddenly in high demand for use in electric vehicle batteries and electronics.

The distance doesn’t mean Reno-Sparks won’t be affected by the decades-long process of extracting the material from the ground and putting it into the domestic supply chain. A Canadian firm, Lithium Americas, has received federal approval to begin mining at the site, and several indigenous and environmental groups are worried about the potential impacts.

While the tribal government nearest to the project has a community benefits agreement with the company, residents of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation and other nearby reservations are dissatisfied with the level of community outreach by federal officials.

Sam said regional tribes, who are all connected to the land, were not consulted, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management instead opted to communicate with just a few tribes.

“BLM thought that they only had to consult with who they wanted to, not realizing how we’re all related. They should have reached out to more tribes with this consultation, knowing that it was going to be the largest [lithium mine] in the country. They should have really made sure all the Great Basin tribes knew,” she said.

Mining History

A black and white photograph with dozens of wooden home structures along a mountainside.
The discovery of gold and silver in 1859 drew people from around the country to Nevada, creating the town of Virginia City almost overnight. Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management

Since its inception, the state of Nevada has been a hotbed for mining. The state was granted statehood during the Civil War, and contributed greatly to the Union through its gold and silver reserves. The Comstock Lode, a major silver ore, sparked mass settlement into the area as people sought to make their fortunes. One such man was a young writer named Samuel Clemens, who upon failing at the mines, took up a job at the local newspaper. It’s here he was first published using his pen name, Mark Twain.

Today, Nevada is the world’s fifth largest producer of gold, digging up significantly more of the valuable material than “The Golden State” of California next door. But, there is another extractive industry taking root in the remote high desert of northern Nevada: lithium.

A 6,000-acre lithium mine and processing plant is under construction in remote northern Nevada, but the project has been stalled by a series of legal challenges from environmentalists, a local rancher and regional tribes. The tribes have said the Bureau of Land Management did not conduct proper consultation with them about this project, which was approved during the pandemic when many tribal governments were closed and dealing with the immediate needs of tribal members.

When it comes to any large-scale projects on federally managed public lands, the BLM is required to consult on a government-to-government basis with affected tribal governments. In the case of the Thacker Pass lithium mine project in northern Nevada, tribes across the Great Basin say that didn’t happen – and that’s causing concern and division among tribal members.

The BLM says in December 2019, it sent certified letters to four regional tribes: the McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, the Pyramid Lake Tribe, Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, and Winnemucca Indian Colony tribes. The agency says “no comments or concerns have been raised during formal government to government consultation for the Project by the tribes.”

A screenshot from BLM documentation talking about its Native American Consultation
From the BLM’s Record of Decision in Jan. 2021

With no objections raised, the BLM approved Lithium Americas’ plans in January 2021 — at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Janet Davis, the chairwoman for the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, told Grist in 2021, “One letter and some emails to the THPO [Tribal Historic Preservation Officer] during the pandemic when she was furloughed does not constitute ‘meaningful consultation.”

Winnemucca Indian Colony chair Judy Rojos told the Nevada Current she didn’t receive a letter until April 2021, after the project had already been approved. And the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe sued the BLM in February 2023, claiming that they weren’t properly consulted on the mine either. Both of those attempts were ultimately rejected by a federal district court judge.

The Bureau of Land Management declined an interview for this story.

The project has caused division among residents of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, which sits a few dozen miles from the mine site. The Tribal Council has been in favor of the project for the economic boom it would bring to the region, while some elders and others have said it would ruin sacred land and water.

That led some members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe to form a group, People of Red Mountain, which has been fighting to raise awareness of the project.

“Nobody really knew anything. It was just all this small talk going around about a lithium mine,” said organizer Chanda Callao.

Calls to the Fort McDermitt Tribal Government were not returned.

While not required, the company itself says it has been working with Fort McDermitt tribal members for years leading up to the start of the project.

“We have a vested interest in making sure that your communities thrive,” said Tim Crowley, vice president of government affairs for Lithium Americas.

The company has entered into a community benefits agreement with the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribes, pledging to build an 8,000 square feet community center that includes a daycare, preschool, playground, cultural facility and communal greenhouse.

“There is an initial investment that we’re making that’s north of $5 million,” Crowley said.

Crowley said all these legal challenges from tribes have been dismissed in court, and this mine is a good project. The federal government and state of Nevada have given the company all the necessary approvals, so he said it’s time to move forward.

The Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project

A photo of two poster boards showing the location and layout of the Thacker Pass lithium mine project.
These poster boards show the location of the Thacker Pass lithium mine project, as well as how the site will be laid out, with the open pit, processing plant, waste rock and more. Credit Noah Glick / Sierra Nevada Ally

Lithium is a metal that is used in lithium-ion batteries, which powers everything from smartphones and laptops to electric vehicles. The U.S. government has deemed it a critical mineral, with the Biden administration investing billions into domestic lithium development.

The Thacker Pass lithium mine project in rural Humboldt County, along the Nevada-Oregon border, will extract lithium from the ore and process that material into lithium-carbonate, the final component used to make batteries. The project will also include an on-site processing plant, which Crowley said helps to secure the domestic supply chain.

“In terms of scale, it’s large. It’s going to be one of the top five producers in the world, certainly the highest producer in domestic areas…it’s a game changer project,” said Crowley.

A photograph of eight glass jars on a table, showing the different phases of the lithium extraction process.
At the Lithium Americas Technical Center in Reno, Nev. visitors can see what the material looks like along every step of the process, from ore (far left) to final lithium carbonate (far right). Credit Noah Glick / Sierra Nevada Ally

Lithium Americas has staked hundreds of mining claims in the area, and estimates that this mine could ultimately provide enough lithium for 1 million electric vehicles a year, for 40 years – and that’s just in the first phase.

The project has garnered attention from both the Trump and Biden administrations, investors and the auto industry, with General Motors recently agreeing to invest $650 million into the company. Crowley said GM will be buying all of the mine’s products for the first ten years, roughly 400,000 tons of lithium-carbonate.

“So we’re not worried about who’s going to take our material, we’re focused on making sure that we produce it in the most sustainable way we possibly can,” Crowley said.

A report from McKinsey & Company estimates the global demand for lithium-ion batteries to increase about 27% annually by 2030, with most of the growth coming from mobility. The Thacker Pass lithium mine project is significant, promising an economic windfall for the people of northern Nevada. But, it’s also causing division among rural communities, including among members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes.

Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation

A photograph of tribal elder Arnold Sam standing outside in front of a camper and makeshift wooden building
Arnold Sam, a tribal elder at the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation and direct descendant of one of the lone survivors of an 1865 massacre, says it’s important to speak out against these large-scale projects. Credit Alejandra Rubio / Sierra Nevada Ally

Nestled within the vast expanse of the high desert of northern Nevada lies the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation. The area, which crosses into Oregon, was first established as a military outpost in 1865 before it was converted into an American Indian reservation school in 1889.

Arnold Sam is a tribal elder who has lived at Fort McDermitt since he was born, and says it has always been hard to find work here. He’s had to travel to nearby cities, including Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Denio and Carson City, before eventually retiring back at the reservation.

“I’ve been on the road for I don’t know how many years living out there in the white man’s world, working and all of that,” Sam said.

Economic opportunities are hard to come by in this part of rural America. According to the latest Census data, the median household income at the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation is $16,477, more than $53,000 lower than the U.S. average.

In addition to the community benefits agreement, Lithium Americas says it is also providing opportunities for good-paying, union jobs, starting with construction, then transitioning to mining operations. But Sam said he’d like to see more from the company to help the day-to-day lives of the residents of this remote reservation, who travel roughly 74 miles to Winnemucca, Nev. for basic supplies and services.

“Bring in homes, we need a lot more homes. Bring in a grocery store or something so we [can] just go a little ways over here instead of driving to Winnemucca. Build another clinic, a bigger clinic,” Sam told the Sierra Nevada Ally.

Sam isn’t convinced the mining company is listening to the issues and concerns of tribal members.

“They don’t care. That’s all they’re talking about, is this money, money, money. They’re not thinking about the Indian people around here,” he said.

And he’s not alone.

Bringing in the Tribal Family

A photograph of tribal rights activist Bethany Sam, standing outside, with a raised fist
Bethany Sam says residents of the Fort McDermitt Reservation asked for help in slowing down or stopping the Thacker Pass lithium mine, because “their tribal council wasn’t listening to them.” Credit Alejandra Rubio / Sierra Nevada Ally

Back in Reno, Bethany Sam (no relation to Arnold) said her traditional knowledge has helped her form a spiritual connection to the land.

“People just look at Mother Earth as the nature that you go recreate in, that you can go hike or go see really pretty waterfalls or things like that. But when it’s just open desert and nothing, they look at it as nothing,” Sam said.

After hearing from Fort McDermitt residents, many of whom said their tribal government wasn’t listening to their concerns, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony began drawing up maps, outlining the cultural significance of the region. Michon Eben manages the colony’s cultural resource program and serves as its tribal historic preservation officer.

“We stated that this is our cultural area that we would like to be consulted on. However, if there was a big project, then we needed to be consulted,” Eben said.

A photograph of a woman looking at a computer, in a dark room.
Michon Eben pulls up maps on her computer, where she has compiled areas of cultural significance to indigenous peoples of the Great Basin. Credit Alejandra Rubio / Sierra Nevada Ally

She said BLM Winnemucca received letters from the RSIC and several tribes in 2021, showing their opposition to this specific project. Much of the resistance is because in the BLM’s documentation approving the mine, there was no mention of an 1865 massacre of Washoe, Shoshone and Paiute people that occurred near the proposed site.

“The environmental impact statement, the record of decision, the Memorandum of Agreement, the Cultural Resources Inventory, the Historic Property Treatment Plan, a lot of the permitting documents that BLM provided to Lithium [Americas] does not talk about the September 12, 1865 massacre, and that’s a historic event that should have been evaluated according to the National Historic Preservation Act.”

A painting depicting a massacre of native peoples from white settlers on horseback
A painting depicts the 1865 massacre of indigenous people by Nevada calvary men, as part of a display at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. Credit Alejandra Rubio / Sierra Nevada Ally

Eben argued the massacre site, and the region, is culturally significant, meaning it’s eligible for some protection as part of the Register of National Historic Places, managed by the National Parks Service. Because of this, she said federal agencies should have conducted interviews with regional tribes to better understand the cultural and historical significance. She helped put together a determination that was sent to BLM Winnemucca making her case.

“And a few weeks later, BLM Winnemucca wrote back and said, ‘Yes, they agree with the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, that our determination is eligible, we recommend it eligible to the register of National Historic Places,” Eben said.

But, Eben said the BLM never sent that to the National Parks Service [NPS] – and that could mean the difference between protection and destruction. Property listings under the National Register of Historic Places generally offer no protections, unless “the property is involved in a project that receives Federal assistance, usually funding or licensing/permitting,” per the NPS.

The entirety of the Thacker Pass lithium mine project is on federal public lands.

The Bureau of Land Management Winnemucca declined to comment for this story, due to pending litigation. But, Lithium Americas has acknowledged that a massacre did occur, just not close enough to the mine.

“It’s been analyzed and studied extensively that regrettably there was a massacre in the Quinn River Basin, which is several miles from our project,” Tim Crowley with Lithium Americas said.

To Eben, that argument rings hollow. She said there are many members, residents and employees of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony who have ties to the Thacker Pass area, and the entire mine project lies within the cultural district they are working to get recognized.

“It doesn’t matter about being the closest, what matters is that we’re all related,” she said.

This reporting is part of a collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit NewsRural News Network, and the Energy News Network, Flatwater Free Press, Mississippi Free Press, New Mexico In Depth, Religion News Service and Sierra Nevada Ally. Support from the Walton Family Foundation made the project possible.

Speaking out