How A Tiny Toad Could Upend a US Geothermal Project

How A Tiny Toad Could Upend a US Geothermal Project

Christine Chung

By Christine Chung
April 5, 2022

A tiny, black-freckled toad with an affinity for hot spring waters is imperiled by the development of a geothermal project in the Nevada desert, a federal agency said on Monday, announcing an emergency measure to list the Dixie Valley toad as an endangered species.

The temporary protection, which went into effect immediately and lasts for 240 days, was imposed to ward off the toad’s potential extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement, adding that it would consider public comments about whether to extend the toad’s emergency listing.

The designation would add another hurdle for a plan to build two power plants with the encouragement of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The project is already the subject of a lawsuit filed by conservationists and a nearby Native American tribe. They hope the emergency listing can be used to block construction, which recently resumed.

At the center of it all is the tiny Dixie Valley toad, a Western species roughly the size of an old-style flip phone. It is named for the only place in the world it is found — 760 acres of wetlands fed by hot springs, about 100 miles east of Reno. Unlike most toad species, they spend most of their time soaking in the hot springs, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

“Protecting small population species like this ensures the continued biodiversity necessary to maintain climate-resilient landscapes in one of the driest states in the country,” the service said.

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies can enforce the protection of species designated endangered by, among other things, prohibiting interference with breeding activities or critical habitat.

The Dixie Valley toad faces numerous threats: disease, groundwater pumping, climate change, invasive species. But geothermal development poses a “significant risk” to the species’ well-being, the federal agency said.

In November, the Bureau of Land Management approved the Dixie Meadows geothermal project, two geothermal plants proposed for public land administered by the federal agency, which said it would help with state goals to encourage more renewable energy sources. A month later, conservationists at the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based advocacy group, and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe sued the bureau in an attempt to block the project. The suit contended that the geothermal plants would dry up nearby hot springs sacred to the tribe and wipe out the Dixie Valley toad species.

“Our Creator made the springs with the toad, as a connected whole,” said Cathy Tuni, Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribal chairwoman.

In February, an appeals court lifted a preliminary injunction pausing construction on the plants. An appeal is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and construction has resumed.

Geothermal energy is generated from hot water sources below the earth’s surface that are reached by drilling wells thousands of feet into underground reservoirs, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Most geothermal reservoirs are in the western states, and energy harnessed from these sources can be used to generate electricity and heat homes. Geothermal power plants have a minimal carbon footprint, release little to no greenhouse gas emissions, and are considered a renewable resource, according to the Energy Department.

The Dixie Meadows geothermal project, operated by Ormat Technologies, based in Reno, has drawn the ire of conservationists who say that geothermal energy should be developed only where it is appropriate.

Patrick Donnelly, a director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that the group opposes “geothermal energy sited near groundwater-dependent ecosystems.” He said the group has sent a request to the bureau asking for an immediate halt to construction in light of the emergency declaration. If the bureau fails to act, he said, the group will file a new lawsuit.

“In the Great Basin, hot springs and thermal water features are oases of biodiversity, providing water in the driest place in North America and thermal refuge in the coldest desert in North America,” Mr. Donnelly said. “So, when geothermal development is sited next to hot springs in the Great Basin, it can pose an existential threat to species living at those springs.”

Zamir Dahbash, a spokesman for Ormat Technologies, said that the company had “long recognized the importance of conserving the Dixie Valley toad, regardless of its legal status.”

“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,” Mr. Dahbash said.

But Mr. Donnelly said the toads were “staring down the barrel of extinction,” adding, “the science is clear. This project poses a threat of extinction to this species.”

* This article was automatically syndicated and expanded from New York Times.

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