Endangered toad stands in the way of a Nevada geothermal project

An endangered toad pits competing environmental interests against each other. KOLO 8 News Now's Ed Pearce reports on the Dixie Valley toad.
Published: Apr. 27, 2022 at 6:19 PM PDT
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DIXIE VALLEY, Nev. (KOLO) - Dixie Valley lies east of Fallon, between the Stillwater and Clan Alpine ranges. At first glance, little distinguishes it from others in Nevada’s basin and range landscape.

There was once a small community here, even a post office. It’s long gone. So are most of the ranches.

It is now home to a training range for the Fallon Naval Air Station and a geothermal power station operated by Ormat Technologies. The company is building another plant several miles further south, adjacent to an area called Dixie Meadows.

There are hot mineral springs in the heart of the land. The surrounding marshland is home to a resident who’s been here longer than anyone else, though he’s only just been discovered.

The Dixie Valley Toad--Anaxyrus williamsi-- was only recognized a few years ago. Even more recently it was determined to be a unique species and its only home on the entire planet is these few hundred acres of marshland.

A sign reading “Protected Area, Sensitive Habitat, Do Not Disturb” outlines the issue quite well. On this side of a fence, moisture, marshland, an environment the toad has adapted to. On the other, dry, high desert land. The toad has no place to go. In fact, it may be uniquely adapted to live here. Few toads bathe in heated water. This one does, though it moves around with the season, finding the safe livable zone between scalding 180-degree water coming from the spring and colder areas that would kill it in winter.

To protect the toad and its unique habitat, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe filed suit against the Bureau of Land Management opposing the construction of the plant.

In February an appeals court lifted a temporary injunction and construction began. Then, earlier this month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave the toad emergency registration on its list of endangered species.

“This was the third time in 20 years they’ve used this power they have to emergency list a species,” said Patrick Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity. “They reserve it for the most dire circumstances.”

The toad and its advocates had new ammunition in their fight to stop construction, but how dire is the threat to the Dixie Valley Toad?

The concern, conservationists say, is not the construction of the plant itself. The bigger fear is what happens when the plant is up and operating. If the water goes, the toad goes with it.

Geothermal plants usually don’t directly use the heated water from the springs. They pump fluid down to the geothermal layer in a closed system. But, Donnelly argues, that may not mean they wouldn’t affect the hot springs themselves. “There’s an extensive body of peer-reviewed literature that shows that geothermal power plants dry up hot springs all the time to the point that the United States Geological Survey in one court said this should be considered the rule rather than the exception.”

In fact in a valley just north of here, that’s apparently what happened. A geothermal well drilled in Jersey Valley reportedly resulted in drying up a hot spring there. An Ormat official we’ve talked with says Jersey Valley was a different situation.

The company declined an interview but did issue a statement that reads:

“Ormat has long recognized the importance of conserving the Dixie Valley Toad, regardless of its legal status, and developed the Aquatic Resources Monitoring and Mitigation Plan (ARMMP) with that in mind. In a process that took six years, our commitment to addressing the social, economic, and environmental concerns of the public has been illustrated through thoughtful and transparent coordination with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as well as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), and the US Navy, Naval Air Station Fallon to develop the ARMMP.

Ormat is confident the ARMMP adequately protects the Dixie Valley toad regardless of its legal status and we remain fully committed to the sustainable development of renewable energy projects in the state of Nevada and around the world. Ormat will coordinate with relevant agencies to ensure that any additional required process is met while we continue our work on this important renewable energy project.”

We’re told that the mitigation plan includes regular monitoring of the hot springs for flow and any possible contamination. Donnelly is not convinced.

“No fewer than four government agencies are on record saying the mitigation plan will not address the concerns and does not safeguard the toad.”

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management says it will work with the Fish and Wildlife Service and Ormat “on an appropriate course of action consistent with law and policy according to USFWS findings” while allowing construction to continue.

The Center for Biological Diversity is waiting for a final ruling from the appeals court while preparing a new lawsuit featuring the toad’s endangered status.

But, Donnelly says, time is running out.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to take to finish construction. We still have a few months, maybe six months left to save this toad from extinction before it’s too late.”

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