Discovered only in 2017, the Dixie Valley toad is found only in one 400-acre hot spring wetland in remote Nevada. Guess where a giant geothermal corporation is ready to build a wetland-draining power plant? We talk to Patrick Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity about this wild species threatened by the energy industry, and the Center's campaign to save the toad. Learn how you can help!
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Chris: Hey, this is Chris. Thanks for tuning in.
We're really grateful for the wonderful comments we've gotten on our inaugural episode and we're going to be putting some of the ideas that you've sent along to use in episodes to come.
In today's episode, we learn about a small toad that's restricted to one valley in central Nevada. It was only discovered as a distinct species in 2017, and yet it's in danger of going extinct due to a corporation that wants to build a giant geothermal plant.
We'll be talking to Patrick Donnelly from the Center for Biological Diversity, who is suing to prevent that from happening. And we'll tell you how you can help.
This episode will be a little bit shorter than the last one. We plan to alternate longer and shorter episodes until we get our production sequence under our feet. We hope you like what you hear.
In the meantime. Get vaccinated. Get boosted. And wear a mask. We need you around.
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Bouse Parker: The sun is a giant blow torch aimed at your face. There ain't no shade nowhere. let's hope you brought enough water. It's time for 90 Miles from Needles, the desert protection podcast with Chris Clarke and Alicia Pike.
Chris: Welcome to 90 Miles from Needles. I'm Chris Clarke.
Alicia: And I'm Alicia Pike.
Chris: One of the things that I like about the desert is that it's an engine for evolution of really interesting species. About five years ago when I was still working at KCET television in Los Angeles, a friend of mine gave me a heads up that there was a newly discovered species of toad that lived only in one valley in a relatively remote section of west central Nevada that was being threatened by development.
That friend is here with us now. Do you want to introduce yourself?
Patrick Donnelly, CBD: Sure. Hello. I'm Patrick Donnelly. I'm great basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity. And I live in beautiful Shoshone, California on the edge of Death Valley.
Chris: And full disclosure, Patrick and I are both members of the board of directors of a group called the Amargosa Conservancy. Tell us a little bit about the Dixie Valley toad. How did you get involved with the fate of the toad?
Patrick: There have always been known to be, isolated populations of toads at various springs across the great basin and in particular they thrive at hot springs. The Great Basin of course is a very cold desert, but the hot springs create ice-free surface water throughout the winter, allowing amphibians to persist. and a professor at the university of Nevada, Reno, and two graduate students began looking at some of these toads.
And in 2017 they described one of them as a new species, the Dixie Valley toad, Anaxyrus williamsi, which was never before described. And it was broken off of the Western toad complex which is a relatively widespread species of toad.
And the Dixie Valley toad’s really interesting. When we think about these great basin endemic aquatic species, you know, usually the story is, “Well, 10,000 years ago, this was all a big interconnected system of lakes and rivers, and they were all interconnected populations, the waters receded, and these species Isolated and became unique taxa”. And that's true for the Dixie Valley toad. However, the Dixie Valley is hydrographically, extremely isolated from the broader area. The last time the Dixie Valley had interconnectivity was 650,000 years ago. So the Dixie Valley toad is an ancient species compared to many other great basin endemics so, pretty unique in terms of how deviated it is from its Western toad brethren.
And right when the professor at UNR ID’d the species he called us and he said, “you’ve got to help. our toads in danger.” And there was a proposal for a geothermal power plant to be built right next to the habitat for this toad, the only global habitat and he called us, and we got involved.
Just a couple of weeks later, I went out there to Fallon and went out to Dixie Meadows hot springs. It's a series of springs that grow along a fault escarpment along about a two-mile area. There's dozens or even hundreds of spring vents along the escarpment. And it creates a wetland where the springs flow out into the valley bottom. And the first day we went out with some Nevada department of wildlife biologists, and it was the middle of the day.
It was pretty hot. And there actually happened to be a couple toads out then they don't prefer that time of day. And so we saw a couple and it was “oh cool. There's the toad. That’s neat.” [SFX: toad] But I wanted to get some photographs and kind of have a different look at things. So I went back out the next morning before Dawn, and it was just me in this isolated marsh, 50 miles from pavement.
And it was the solstice, it was June 21. And so the sun was rising at 5:30 and there were hundreds of migratory birds in these ponds. So ibises and avocets and various ducks and the sun was lighting up the Hills and then when I could finally see enough, I started looking through the marsh grass and it turns out it's just crawling with toads.
[SFX: hundreds of toads]
And there were hundreds of toads. And I couldn't step without moving a toad out of the way. It was just incredible because, I was there because we need to save this toad from extinction, but here's this toad it's just, it’s happy. It's having a wonderful life here at Dixie Meadows. And if it weren't for this 🤬 geothermal power plant, this toad could go on forever just living its wonderful existence here at Dixie Meadows. And it was just a wonderful morning to connect with the toad. I also got this one really good photograph of the toad. And it's been on the cover of USA Today and it's been on the Times of London, like that photo has been around the world
it was just a very meaningful morning to me. One of the finest mornings I've ever had in the desert, I think.
Alicia: And how much space would you say the habitat is?
Patrick: The total habitat for the toad is less than 400 acres. And that is the global distribution of the Dixie Valley toad.
Chris: So that's one medium-sized Ikea parking lot.
Patrick: A little larger than that, but certainly a discrete and small area of land, and Dixie Meadows is such an important resource because it's the only substantial surface water for dozens of miles in every direction.
And you know, while Dixie Meadows is the sole global habitat for the Dixie Valley toad. It's also important surface water for migratory birds, waterfowl, bighorn sheep, pronghorn. They will all get a drink there. It's really an epicenter of biodiversity for the area.
Chris: So the toad in being unique to the area has a possibility of being an umbrella species that offers protection for the other animals that are using the water and enjoying, the benefits of the springs there.
Patrick: I mean, we have a set of environmental laws for better or ill — we think for better ‘because we spend our time using them to save the environment — but we have a set of environmental laws that prioritizes species conservation over ecosystem conservation.
And when we heard this ecosystem was threatened, we looked to how you can protect the ecosystem. And that is there's this endemic species that lives nowhere else on earth and its existence is threatened with extinction. In the Endangered Species Act it says pretty specifically, “this act provides a means to protect the ecosystems upon which endangered species rely.”
And so that language and the Endangered Species Act kind of connects the two between focusing on saving the species versus saving the ecosystems upon which the species rely. We're not just saving a toad, you know, we're saving on the biodiversity of the whole area.
Alicia: And the area's also culturally significant to some native tribes, right?
Patrick: Yeah. The Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe whose reservation and home base is in the Lahontan valley just to the west. They have an ancestral heritage and connection with Dixie Meadows as their place of healing. And their healers used to live out there and you would go out for healing. They would use the hot springs and the mud and that was their place for renewal and also a spiritual element too. their creation story brings them to Fox peak, the high point of the Stillwater Mountains.
And this is where they get their unobstructed view of Fox Peak from Dixie Meadows. And so it's as they described in our lawsuit, which we'll talk about of course, almost all of the springs that were sacred to them had been destroyed. And so Dixie Meadows is in some ways, the last untouched, mostly natural spring.
And, in, for desert indigenous people, springs were really the epicenter of life. Water is life.
Alicia: So what proximity would this geothermal plant be to these springs that we're talking about?
Patrick: The geothermal plant would come within a thousand feet of the wetlands. So it's practically being built right on top of Dixie Meadows.
However, it's not the footprint of the geothermal plant that is the biggest problem. Certainly, direct habitat loss of dozens or hundreds of acres for the geothermal facility is of concern. But the issue is pumping water. So you need to think a little about how a geothermal power plant works.
You pump hot water from a geothermal underground aquifer. That water will heat a thermal transfer medium. Usually they use pentane or another type of chemical that can be superheated by the hot water which then creates steam that spins a turbine.
And so you're pumping the hot water you're using the heat and then they have all this water that used to be hot. They re-inject that water back into the aquifer. It's called a closed loop system or a binary system. They end up pumping and re-injecting a huge amount of water, tens of billions of gallons a year when it's fully operational the amount of water being pumped and re-circulated is several orders of magnitude more than the amount of water that comes out of the spring.
The spring of course comes from that same geothermal aquifer. And so, if you think that there's tens of thousands of acre-feet pumping and re-circulating it just a couple of hundred acre-feet coming out in the spring, it's almost just lost in the system. And so this huge amount of pumping messes with the pressure and eventually springs adjacent to geothermal power plants dry up. And it turns out, when I started looking into it with this project, that this happens all the time and there's this extensive body of literature showing springs either drying up completely or changing in temperature or geochemistry as a result of geothermal energy development.
And It's this kind of hidden crisis and there’s springs all over Nevada and all over New Zealand and Japan that have dried up when geothermal energy production started and who knew?
Caller: Hi, this is Jeff Hunter calling from Asheville, North Carolina. My wife Cara and I absolutely love the desert. We spend a lot of time in our favorite national park, Death Valley. we spend time in the surrounding landscape managed by the BLM.
We absolutely love those incredible landscapes for a bunch of reasons. it provides an opportunity for solitude to disconnect from the world and really just revel in the beauty of these great landscapes. these places are also really important because of the natural and cultural resources they protect.
You don't see a lot, of wildlife, it's not always evident, but the biodiversity is just incredible in these places. thank goodness that there are people who care about these places and protect them
Chris: So walk us through the events that led up to you filing the lawsuit. Presumably this went through an environmental assessment process with, would it be the Bureau of Land Management? Is that the lead agency there?
Patrick: yes. BLM's the agency. So, back in 2017, when we first got into this BLM had proposed the project and we pushed back in regulatory comments. And at the same time, we became so concerned that we filed an Endangered Species Act petition to protect the toad under the Endangered Species Act. and things went quiet for a couple of years. The Endangered Species Act petition proceeded according to the law. And it was working its way through the system.
Although the toad is not yet listed under the ESA. It takes a long time to get a species listed. But the geothermal project seemed to go dormant until the last few months of the Trump administration, things started ramping back up and I found out through Freedom of Information Act requests that the BLM was shopping around an environmental assessment for the project to agencies who were all very concerned about the project.
And so my FOIA requests turned up comments from the U S fish and wildlife service and Nevada department of wildlife, the USGS all telling BLM. This project is going to drive this toad extinct. You can't do this. And Time went on and BLM put out the project for comment and went through all the steps that you do to approve a project.
Again, things went quiet and then all of a sudden it got approved two days before Thanksgiving. And again FOIA request a Freedom of Information Act request, we did turned out that Ormat, the project developer went to the governor and went to our congressional delegation in Nevada. And the project was approved shortly thereafter.
So evidence from the FOIA record of some political interference. But the project was approved, like I said, two days before Thanksgiving, and then it was time for us to leap into action. And so we consulted with the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe and together we filed a lawsuit a couple of weeks later on mid-December in district court to try to stop the project. now the project developer has a deadline for producing power from this project. So they said they had to start construction at a certain time in order to meet that deadline and thus were insisting they were going to start construction on January 6, lawsuit be damned. And as a result, we had to move for preliminary injunction, which is your most sort of extreme time-sensitive approach you can do in a lawsuit to try to literally stop the bulldozers. you know, that was a big lift on the part of our attorneys to get all that done right before Christmas. But the project developer was proceeding regardless of concerns from environmentalists or the tribe. So we sort of had no choice, but to engage at that level What's this litigation,
Alicia: From my understanding, there's a push to meet a renewable energy quota and that's part of what this plant would accomplish. And I find that kind of a hard thing to reconcile like, oh, let's just make this toad extinct, do this so we can meet renewable energy goals.
Patrick: Well, renewable energy quotas tend to be agnostic about the technology used to get there nor the environmental impacts thereof. They basically say you need to produce carbon free electricity and Get there However you see fit.
Chris: Where does this go from here? What are your chances of winning the lawsuit?
Patrick: Yeah so, we won the preliminary injunction for 90 days on the fourth. So last Tuesday and stop the bulldozers with, 48 hours to go until construction was going to start. It was a pretty dramatic week in that way.
Chris: That was an awesome birthday present for me, by the way. Thank you.
Patrick: Oh was that your birthday? Happy birthday. So you know, the judge gave a relatively short injunction, the idea being that if someone, if one wanted a longer injunction, one could appeal to the Ninth Circuit.
The preliminary injunction was based on immediate irreparable harm, So the actual effects of construction. it's important to point out that what we talked earlier about was the problems of the pumping, pumping the water re-injecting it is going to dry up the springs.
That actually doesn't happen until the plant is constructed and the pumps get turned on. So we essentially have not yet had the argument about the science on the water. We've only talked about the construction impact so far in court. So when we finally hear this case on the merits about the overall impacts of the project, I'm really looking forward to that actually, because our science is strong.
We have all these agencies. The documents we got in FOIA where they're corroborating exactly what our hydrologist is saying: BLM science is bunk. And so I'm really looking forward to this case, being heard on the merits because not only do I think we're going to win and stop this project dead in its tracks, But I think if we do win, it's going to force BLM to start Looking at these issues when they permit geothermal projects. This was something I really uncovered through this work, was that BLM ignores this stuff all the time. Like basically every geothermal energy project that's ever been permitted, BLM has ignored impacts to adjacent surface water resources. And so if we win, we might be able to change the way geothermal's permitted. That doesn't mean stopping every geothermal power plant in the west, but it does mean that they'll at least analyze whether or not they're going to drive species extinct and whether or not there needs to be mitigation or whether or not it's the appropriate place to build at all.
So there, there could be a precedent-setting ramifications from this case, if we make it to the merits and if we prevail.
Chris: Is there a right place for geothermal? do you see a sustainable future for geothermal if it's done well?
Patrick: I think the first thing is geothermal should not be sited near Hotspur. And that's where they want to put it ‘cause the hot spring is indicative of a resource, but geothermal dries up hot springs. And if it's important to us to maintain desert water sources to maintain biodiversity, then geothermal shouldn't go there. Period. Now there are what's called blind resources, which means resources that do not have surface expression.
And they're detected through various geologic testing methods and yeah, so blind resources Should be theoretically okay to develop. Now there's always the impacts of actually the industrial infrastructure and it turns out the blind resource that Ormat loves to point to, McGinnis Hills project in central Nevada happened to be in the middle of the best sage-grouse habitat in the state. And 10 leks winked out of existence right after they started production there cause geothermal energy is quite noisy It turns out. who knew?
[SFX: Brakes squealing]
Bouse Parker: Okay, wait a minute. It’s time to hit the Desert Dictionary.
Chris: A lek, spelled L E K, is a breeding strategy engaged in by a number of species, including sage grouse. Sage grouse leks are generally open areas, adjacent to dense clumps of sagebrush. And the same lek may be used by grouse for decades.
Each spring the males congregate and perform a strutting display. Each male puffs up large air sacs on his chest. And the male struts around with his tail feathers, splayed out. And air sacks puffed up.
Females watch these displays and eventually select the most attractive males to mate with.
Only a few selected males do most of the breeding.
In one case biologists observed a male sagegrouse mating with 37 different females in a period of 37 minutes.
Sage grouse are a vulnerable species threatened by grazing, Mining, Wildfire, and other kinds of habitat destruction, So the loss of a lek is a big deal.
Patrick: So you know, there are constraints on where we can put geothermal sustainably. There are probably “Goldilocks Places,” blind resources where there's not desert tortoises or greater sage-grouse. those places probably do exist.
It's just like any other energy source. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Right. And I'm not sure we should bank our future on geothermal energy, being our savior, because it seems like there's a lot of impacts from it. And those places where it can be sustainably developed may be somewhat limited.
Alicia: So what can people who are listening do to support the nixing of the project?
Patrick: Yeah. I mean, we're deep in litigation right now. I think in general the Center for Biological Diversity has its legitimacy because we have 1.7 million members and supporters across the country. And if your listeners aren't one, then you should become one.
Alicia: There you go.
Patrick: Because that's part of how we fund these lawsuits but also where we get our legitimacy and power from is that we have huge amounts of people who believe in preserving biodiversity that stand with us.
And becoming a member and donating $25 or whatever seems like a token gesture, but it actually makes a difference when there's, tens or hundreds of thousands of people doing it. And the other thing I would say is clicktivism works. So once you sign up for the Center for Biological Diversity’s mailing list, you’ll get lots of action alerts where you click five times, and it sends an email to whoever BLM or whoever the villain of the week is. And it seems like again, like, oh, that’s Not meaningful. You know, that’s just clicking a couple of times, but actually it gives folks like me, a tool to use.
And in our campaigns, if we get 25,000 people signing a letter to BLM saying, don't make a toad go extinct, that's a tool we then have, and we can use. And it makes a very powerful statement that a lot of people care about these issues. So clicktivism actually works. It actually is meaningful, even if it doesn't seem meaningful because it can be used to magnify the impact of activism.
Chris: and the center's website address is?
Chris: Thank you so much for joining us.
Alicia: Great to have you here.
Patrick: all right! Thanks.
Bouse Parker: This episode of Ninety Miles from Needles was produced by Alicia Pike and Chris Clarke. Editing by Chris. Thanks to Patrick Donnelly for the interview. To find out more about the Dixie Valley toad visit biologicaldiversity.org. Podcast artwork by the clever Martín Mancha. Intro and outro music are by Brightside Studio. other music by slip.stream. follow us on Twitter at @90 m i from needles, and on Facebook at facebook.com/ninety miles from needles. Find us at 90milesfromneedles.com or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Crucial support for this podcast came from Tad Coffin and Lara Rozzell.
All characters on this podcast are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies. and the deep trees the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile. the wild geese high in the clean blue air are heading home again.
I'm Bouse Parker, see y'all next time.