Tribe sues to protect sacred hot springs, rare desert toad’s habitat

Tribe sues to protect sacred hot springs, rare desert toad’s habitat
Dixie Valley Toad. (Center for Biological Diversity photo)

by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current
December 20, 2021

Tribal leaders and a conservation group have joined forces to sue the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over its approval of a geothermal energy project, which they say would damage a nearby spring considered sacred to tribes and endanger a rare desert toad.

In a suit filed last week the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe in Churchill County and the Center for Biological Diversity claim BLM violated several federal laws when they approved the Dixie Meadows geothermal energy project, which would be built about 43 miles northeast of Fallon.

The proposed project would include two geothermal powerplants, 18 or more geothermal wells, access roads, and 48 miles of transmission line on about 2,000 acres of public land in Dixie Valley in north-central Nevada, adjacent to the Dixie Meadows Hot Springs.

Dixie Valley is the traditional homeland of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, which in 1887 was forced onto a reservation where most of its 1,500 members live today. The hot springs are considered a sacred site to the tribe, who refer to themselves as the Toi-Ticutta, or “Cattail eaters,” because the native edible plant was traditionally harvested for food from marshes such as those in Dixie Meadows. 

The valley is culturally and religiously significant to the tribe and their way of life, said Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribal Chairwoman Cathi Tuni. The lawsuit argues the agency failed to uphold its trust responsibilities to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe when developing its final environmental review on the project.

“The United States has repeatedly promised to honor and protect indigenous sacred sites, but then the BLM approved a major construction project nearly on top of our most sacred hot springs. It just feels like more empty words,” said Tuni. “This location has long been recognized as being of vital significance to the tribe. There are geothermal plants elsewhere in Dixie Valley and the Great Basin that we have not opposed, but construction of this plant would build industrial power plants right next to a sacred place of healing and reflection, and risks damaging the water in the springs forever. We have a duty to protect the hot springs and its surroundings, and we will do so.”

The tribe’s long standing use of the Dixie Meadows Hot Springs as a sacred site and landscape is well-documented in oral histories and ethnographies. In recent years the tribe has repeatedly fought to protect Dixie Valley from environmental degradation, including opposing the now abandoned expansion of the Fallon Range Training Complex in the Dixie Valley. 

Tribal leaders strongly opposed the expansion of the training range in Dixie Valley, arguing the expansion would destroy burial grounds, sacred cultural sites, and cut off public lands for religious and cultural activities like gathering, hunting, ceremonies and burials.

Disruption of Dixie Meadows would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, argues the lawsuit, by turning the religiously significant spring “ into an industrial setting with substantial noise, traffic, light, and presence of two 32-acre powerplants, 18 wells, and associated infrastructure,” causing an unjust burden to tribal members’ religious practices. 

In the lawsuit, the tribe pointed to the decline in water flow in the Nevada Jersey Valley Hot Springs about 40 miles away from another  geothermal power facility similar to the one proposed near Dixie Valley, by the same developer, Ormat Technologies.

BLM has confirmed that Jersey Valley Hot Springs water flows started to decline not long after commercial power production started at the McGinnis Hills geothermal power plant in July, 2012.

Ormat says the project would include measures to reduce, reverse, or prevent damage to the Dixie Meadows spring.

“To ensure that potential significant adverse effects on these species and their habitats do not occur, the aquatic resources monitoring and mitigation plan would provide a monitoring framework to detect potential adverse effects,” Ormat contends.

If Dixie Meadows were to similarly dry out “it would be devastating,” said tribal members.

BLM has acknowledged the project “would have an adverse effect to the Dixie Meadows Hot Springs site” but an agreement with the developer and other parties that would “lessen, minimize or mitigate the adverse effect to the site.” The agency’s environmental assessment resulted in a “finding of no significant impact.”

“Many of the other springs in the area have been damaged or ruined by development,” the tribe says in the lawsuit. “Dixie Meadows Hot Springs is therefore the most important and sacred spring to the Tribe, and one of the very last remaining springs in the area. The cumulative impacts of past development, including geothermal energy development, make Dixie Meadows Hot Springs especially important.”

Environmentalists also fear the planned geothermal energy plant would threaten the existence of a recently discovered species of toad unique to the area. The toads can be found in remote wetlands fed by thermal desert springs on the western edge of the Dixie Valley Playa in Nevada’s Churchill County.

The BLM has designated the Dixie Valley toad a “sensitive” species. The Nevada Department of Wildlife is also currently looking at implementing state-level protections for the Dixie Valley toad.

In 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also announced the Dixie Valley toad may qualify for Endangered Species Act protection after the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the lawsuit against the BLM with the Fallon Pauite-Shoshone Tribe, petitioned the agency. However, the ESA review process has since been delayed.

“We strongly support renewable energy when it’s in the right place, but a project like this that threatens sacred sites and endangered species is definitely the wrong place,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center. “The BLM’s inadequate analysis of this project and its potential harms endangers the future of this beautiful wetland and the creatures and people who depend on it.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted that BLM’s assessment that the project would have no effects on federally threatened and endangered species or critical habitat “is likely not true” due to the agency’s assessment that the toad may qualify for Endangered Species Act.

“It’s a well-documented fact that geothermal power plants alter or dry up adjacent thermal spring systems. If Dixie Meadows’ hot springs dry up, or if the temperature or chemical composition of their discharge changes that could spell doom for the Dixie Valley toad,” USFWS wrote in comments to BLM’s environmental assessment on the project. “Effective mitigation for such impacts is not possible, and creating a situation where the toad is reliant on the geothermal developer to sustain its habitat through replacement water is unacceptable.”

“The BLM rammed through approval of this project over the objections of government scientists and a tribal nation,” Donnelly said. “We’re asking a judge to right those wrongs, save Dixie Meadows for the spiritual and cultural traditions of the Tribe, and preserve biodiversity.”

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