Conservationists oppose water rights for Nevada gold mine

Reno, Nev. • Five conservation groups have joined a tribe’s effort to block the expansion of a northeast Nevada gold mine they say would suck water from other area users and destroy cultural resources and habitat for sensitive wildlife dependent on nearby wetlands.

The environmentalists filed protests this week with the Nevada Division of Water Resources challenging 31 water rights applications sought by Nevada Gold Mines, a joint venture between Newmont and Barrick Gold Corp. about 30 miles west of the Nevada-Utah line.

It’s the latest attempt to scuttle expansion of the Long Canyon Gold Mine, which requires pumping water from the ground to draw the water table down about 1,000 feet to keep the open pit dry while mining the ore.

The Utah-based Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation has been raising concerns about the mine since it first was proposed a decade ago. The tribe lost its appeal challenging the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's approval of the mine's initial phase in 2015.

Environmentalists now are focusing on the state water rights the company must secure to carry out the so-called "dewatering" project.

They say it would allow withdrawal of up to 43,000 gallons of water per minute from Goshute Valley — the highest mine dewatering rate in Nevada.

"It is time for Nevada to take a hard look at the consequences of allowing mining companies to engage in these massive dewatering projects that deplete regional groundwater for potentially hundreds of years," said John Hadder, director of the Great Basin Resource Watch.

The Reno-based watchdog group filed the protests with the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club Toiyabe Chapter, Wild Horse Education and Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

On average, the 31 applications combined would annually remove for two years more than half as much water as the Truckee Meadows Water Authority annually provides residents and businesses in Reno-Sparks, they say.

Newmont Mining Corp. announced in 2016 it had made the most significant oxide ore discovery in Nevada in more than a decade at the mine. Newmont purchased a neighboring ranch with existing water rights for irrigation purposes. Nevada Gold Mines now wants to convert those rights for mining uses.

"It's a big deal," Hadder said. "If they can't get these water rights converted, they can't get the water."

Hadder said the draw-down would quickly dry up Goshute Valley's Johnson Springs Wetland Complex with 88 individual springs vital to hundreds of species including sage grouse, deer, elk, antelope and Relict Dace, a tiny endangered fish.

The company says the water withdrawn would be returned to the valley. But Hadder said it would flow into a shallow aquifer and wouldn't seep into the more significant deep aquifer that sustains springs and wetlands for more than a century.

He said the company hasn't provided any details but that modeling provided by the mine's consultant examines aquifer restoration "as far out as 500 years, and it still wouldn't be fully restored at that point."

The company said it has communicated its plans to other water rights holders in the area "and will incorporate monitoring for potential impacts with any associated mitigation." It's still drafting plans to manage and conserve wetland species.

Nevada Gold Mines “remains committed to strong environmental stewardship and responsible modern mining practices that seek to minimize and mitigate its impact on the environment, including cultural sites,” it said in an email.

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