Once Again, Water is the Issue
by Mason Voehl, Executive Director of the Amargosa Consevancy
Peering down out of the window of a Cessna 210 airplane humming across the northern Amargosa River watershed, two things become obvious: this landscape is extremely important, and the future of this landscape is in serious jeopardy.
Ash Meadows seen from the air
Photo: Mason Voehl
As the executive director of the Amargosa Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that for two decades has been the leading voice on conservation issues in the Amargosa River watershed, people often ask me whether the river is “actually” a river. Indeed, the “hide-n-seek” river that flows from basins in western Nevada for 186 miles through the California Desert has an uncanny ability to evade our sight from our earth-bound perspectives. But while gazing out of the window of an airplane at the vast water-streaked alluvial fans, the miles of vibrantly green mesquite bosque forests, and the shimmering cerulean pools of ancient springs below, one can harbor no doubt that indeed the Amargosa River is one river: a wild, improbable, free-flowing river in one of the harshest deserts on the planet.
This opportunity to view the watershed from a bird’s eye perspective was made possible by Ecoflight, a nonprofit that offers organizations like ours the unforgettable experience of seeing the landscape from above. The purpose of our flight was to consider the state of Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in light of the threats of extractive projects, including a proposed exploratory mining project on its doorstep that our organization is actively opposing.
Ash Meadows is surely no stranger to danger. The story of Ash Meadows is truly a story of direct threats to the ecosystem that have mobilized a coalition of researchers, nonprofits, landowners, and local, state and federal government agencies to take drastic actions to save it. When agricultural pumping of groundwater threatened the existence of the Devil's Hole pupfish in the 1950s, unprecedented legal action was taken to protect the pupfish and preserve water levels in its lonesome abode. When a developer came around with visions of building the next desert metropolis and resort emporium on top of this oasis, the Nature Conservancy began acquiring crucial spring areas. This led to the eventual transferring of Ash Meadows to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the designation of Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in 1984. The fact that Ash Meadows remains the largest oasis in the Mojave Desert, home to the highest local concentration of endemic species in the United States and an internationally recognized wetland, is frankly miraculous.
Unfortunately, threats and challenges remain very much on the horizon for Ash Meadows. A staggering number of proposed projects, ranging from renewable energy to open pit mining, collectively pose a threat to the integrity of the refuge. This is by virtue of the one thing they all need: water. There are long-term concerns regarding the historic and ongoing overpumping of groundwater in the Nevada portion of the Amargosa River watershed, of which Ash Meadows is the undisputed beating heart. Mounting stresses on the regional aquifer and disruptions to ancient hydrological flows pose an existential threat to the groundwater-dependent species, habitat, and communities of the entire watershed.
The current crisis is in the form of an exploratory lithium mining project on the northern boundary of the refuge. A Canadian mining company called Rover Metals notified the Bureau of Land Management in the spring of 2023 of their intent to conduct an exploratory drilling project to prospect for lithium. Their exploration would entail the drilling of up to 30 boreholes to a depth of 250-300 feet to retrieve core samples. The company acknowledges that they would expect to hit groundwater in every borehole. Several of these boreholes would come within 1,500 feet of historic Fairbanks Spring, home to the endangered Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish and Ash Meadows speckled dace.
Drilling proposal at Ash Meadow
Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish in Fairbanks Spring
Photo Courtesy of Amargosa Conservancy
Upon becoming aware of this project, the Amargosa Conservancy immediately convened a coalition of concerned communities and organizations to coordinate an opposition campaign. The chief concern was that the drilling of boreholes could affect the flow of Amargosa River groundwater that sustains the springs in the northern portion of Ash Meadows. A single bad borehole could cause a dewatering event that could cause catastrophic and irreparable damage to these springs and all downstream habitat areas. We also envision the possibility that this exploration would lead to the creation of an open pit lithium mine on the borders of one of the most significant biodiversity hotspots on Earth.
The public outcry in opposition to this project rang out loud and clear. A letter, signed by 22 nonprofit organizations and supported by the Timbisha Shoshone nation, was sent to leadership within the Department of the Interior. We insisted that this project not move forward without robust analysis, consultation, and the opportunity for the public to provide comment. Nearly 1,800 individuals wrote letters describing their love for the refuge, and their desire to see it safeguarded. Emergency legal actions were taken to prevent commencement of the drilling. Stories ran in local, regional, and national media outlets. And on July 19, 2023, the BLM officially rescinded their approval of the project, citing potential impacts to the refuge and its endangered species. They now require a plan of operations from Rover Metals and call for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to be conducted.
Though our coalition gained a victory in stopping the immediate threat of drilling, the fight is far from over. It appears that Rover Metals intends to move the project forward following an environmental review process at some later date. The challenge remains to safeguard the refuge from this and other future projects that pose a direct threat to its hydrological (and therefore ecological) integrity. The Amargosa Conservancy believes that no mining operation of any scale in this location could avoid posing a potentially existential threat to the springs of the refuge and their endangered inhabitants. We will therefore continue to oppose Rover Metals and subsequent companies seeking to conduct exploratory mining operations on the doorstep of the refuge, and we will be engaging robustly in the NEPA process, if one is initiated.
There are other paths to proactively saving Ash Meadows and the Amargosa River that should be explored now. If the story of Ash Meadows tells us one thing, it is that groundwater-dependent ecosystems must deal with threats from beyond their designated boundaries. Although Ash Meadows is already technically protected as a National Wildlife Refuge, its future fundamentally depends on how the entire Amargosa River (that sustains the refuge) is safeguarded. It is imperative that land managers and decision makers consider the cumulative impacts of all proposed development in this hydrological basin, and they must deny all projects that pose a threat to groundwater-dependent habitats and species in Ash Meadows.
My organization recognizes that lithium is a key element in combating climate change and that some mining must be undertaken in the near term. But there have to be some places that are just too exceptionally important, because of their ecological and cultural significance, to be sacrificed to achieve a decarbonized energy economy. Ash Meadows is undoubtedly one of those places. The communities of the region are united in their commitment to taking every possible action to defend the future of this ecological wonderland. We will continue to stand up for the land, water, wildlife, and communities of the Amargosa River watershed, whose future is inextricably linked to the sustainable management of the groundwater that supports them.
Perhaps James Everett Deacon, the late pioneer of desert pupfish research and legal champion in the U.S. Supreme Court case that protected the Devil's Hole pupfish, put it best in the March 1970 issue of Cry California. On the Ash Meadows crisis of the time he reflected:
"We know what must be done to save the pupfish. What we need is the commitment to see to it that they continue to thrive. For if by our inaction we allow the desert pupfish, and perhaps with them the wonders of Death Valley, to be exterminated for the short-term economic advantage of a few, we will have committed a crime comparable to bombing the Louvre to make way for a parking lot.” — Deacon and Brunnell, 1970
These are the words ringing in my ears above the steady thrum of the Cessna 210 engine, gazing out upon one of our last best places that needs defending now more than ever.
Ash Meadows Amargosa Pupfish
Photo: Courtesy USFWS
Mason Voehl is an activist and writer representing the Amargosa Conservancy as its Executive Director. Over the last decade, Mason has cultivated a love affair with the American West through the mediums of climbing, backpacking, and general rambling with his wife Sarah and two dogs. Mason’s essays on human-land relations have been featured in The Dark Mountain Project, Climbing Magazine, and the Black Mountain Radio podcast.