Photo By David Robert John Edwards

The Nevada caucuses, which began as a Democratic Party project, were supposed to elevate Western issues in the debates over who should win the presidential nomination. Nevada Republicans joined the Democrats in moving their caucuses back to January, but neither journalists nor the party’s candidates have given much attention to the state’s issues. Reporters tend to ask about Yucca Mountain and stop there. As Hugh Jackson wrote in Las Vegas CityLife in November, “Alas, as was demonstrated again last week during the latest round of visits from top tier Democratic candidates to Las Vegas, the campaigns have very little time or inclination to hold forth on water policy, sprawl or even the charismatic mega fawn of Nevada political rhetoric, Yucca Mountain.”

We sought information from the candidates about their positions on four Nevada issues. Surprisingly, given the complaint of candidates that they don’t get to talk enough about issues, some campaigns had to be badgered into participating. Some candidates responded quickly, some slowly, some not at all. (Dennis Kucinich, Christopher Dodd and Joe Biden did not reply.)

Every candidate was contacted at least twice. This edition carries the responses of the Democrats who replied, either in writing or by interview. A later edition will carry Republican responses from candidates who respond. (So far, two candidates—Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson—have declined to respond. John McCain and Ron Paul have submitted responses. The others are yet reply.)

Information clarifying the responses or adding later information is added in brackets.

Photo By David Robert Barack Obama

Both the Clinton and second Bush administrations have had to approve or disapprove transfers of water in Nevada from rural to urban areas. What guidelines would you want your administration to apply in deciding whether to approve such transfers?

Bill Richardson: [In February in an RN&R interview, Richardson said he would seek a new cabinet department dealing with water and on water transfers would follow Nevada Sen. Harry Reid’s lead. Seeking more definitive information, we obtained this statement in a subsequent interview:] What I would do is get all sides together here in Nevada, rural and urban, and I’d try to hammer an agreement out. … But what I think we need is a Western regional policy where we look at all of the issues that affect water re-use, recycling, conservation, and then talk to other states that produce water and maybe have a national water policy. We don’t have that. But what I want to do is elevate water issues because they’re the bread and butter of agriculture and economic development, and we’re kind of driftless on this issue.

Barack Obama: I understand that the American West is facing a serious crisis. In the long run, we will not have enough water to meet the fast-growing needs of city residents, farmers, ranchers, Native Americans and wildlife. The demand is increasing; the supply is not. It is time for Americans to become proactive in our efforts to resolve the problem. Crisis management is not a long-term solution. To accomplish that goal, we need a commitment at the federal level to a problem-solving initiative that will help manage scarce water resources, and develop partnerships to nourish a healthy environment and sustain a vibrant economy. In addition, federal policies are needed to encourage voluntary water banks, wastewater treatment and other market-based measures, improve technology for water conservation and efficiency, and remove institutional barriers to increase cooperation and collaboration among federal, state, tribal and private organizations.

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Mike Gravel: As chairman of the Water Resources Committee, in 1979, I proposed a complete reevaluation of the Colorado River Compact, as it was obvious that the conditions which existed in 1922 had changed dramatically. First, it was determined that the entire Colorado River Basin annual water flow was grossly over-estimated. They had used an inappropriate time frame and over-estimated the amount of water available by about over 2 million acre feet—that’s 20 percent! Back then, Las Vegas was a water stop on the Union Pacific railroad, Phoenix was enjoying its first decade as capital of the new state of Arizona, and only Southern California had a significant population. But by the ‘70s, the scenario was dramatically changed with Nevada and Phoenix growing like crazy, and Southern California running out of drinking water. But, like many good ideas, people would rather fight than compromise, and my proposal was rejected out of hand by the signatories to the Colorado River Compact. Now, 25 years later, Nevada has been the fastest growing state six out of the last seven years, and Las Vegas has become a major metropolis with an ever-increasing thirst, and water throughout the West is the scarcest resource, and we are in a multi-year drought that has seen Lake Mead drop by 80 feet. But, at the same time, the Western ranchers’ lifestyle is an integral part of the heritage of Nevada, and to dry up vast ranch holdings to sustain development of metropolitan areas without a strong commitment to water conservation and managed growth is irresponsible. And don’t forget that 86 percent of Nevada is federal land, and that land has water rights, and ranchers have grazing rights on it, as well. This water belongs to all Americans. I believe that rural water diversion in Nevada should be the last option to sustain the growth of the metropolitan areas, but saying that, the federal government must recognize that it is a partner in the development of Nevada and, to that end, it has a responsibility to ensure the economic health of the state and its key industry.

John Edwards: Water transfers within the state are a decision for Nevadans and principally a matter of Nevada law. To the extent that any proposed transfers require transportation across federal lands, I believe that federal land managers should consult early and often with Nevadans and state and local officials in considering applications for rights-of-way and protecting public lands and water resources.

Hillary Clinton: As a general matter, state law governs the transfer of water rights, and I do not believe that the federal government should usurp state water law. Where the federal government has both primacy and legal authority, I favor water transfers where the interested parties can agree on terms, such as the sharing arrangements that have enabled the state of Nevada to store some of its Colorado River water entitlement in Arizona. When transfers involving federal jurisdiction do occur, it is vital that environmental and social impacts be fully considered and evaluated.

Photo By David Robert Mike Gravel

Would you recommend changes in federal policy on grazing fees, and if so, what would they be?

Richardson: They’re fine where they are.

Obama: We should work towards a reasonable compromise that protects federal land from overgrazing and recovers more of the cost of administering the grazing programs, yet also takes into account the effects on small and medium-sized ranchers.

Gravel: Eighty-six percent of Nevada is federal land, and the BLM manages 80 percent of all the federal grazing land in Nevada. Ranching is a heritage in Nevada and one that cannot survive without access to federal land at a reasonable fee. Based upon what I know, I would not, at present, change the relationship between the rancher and the federal land managers. But I would be open to a discussion as to what changes might be valuable to enhancing the economic viability of the rancher. With the new-found emphasis on corn-based ethanol, feed corn prices have escalated, putting pressure on ranchers. The rapid growth in Nevada, particularly in Clark County, has sent the value of ranch water sky high, causing yet another threat to the ranching industry. So, on balance, I feel that the grazing rights of ranchers on federal land is a supportable use and one that should be managed on a sustainable level to ensure the future of ranching in Nevada.

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Edwards: Our goal should be to keep the public lands healthy for generations to come. However, I do not believe that higher grazing fees are necessary to achieve this goal. Ranchers and hunters have both a personal interest in conservation and a responsibility to be good stewards of the land. One thing we should do is hire more range technicians to help rangers manage the land sustainably.

Photo By David Robert Hillary Clinton

Clinton: I recognize and respect the long tradition of providing low cost grazing leases on our public lands. I do not believe that major changes need to be made in this area. I strongly support the state-based advisory councils that have been used to help identify lands that may no longer be suitable for grazing and to put appropriate conditions on leases to ensure that public resources are protected.

Would you recommend changes in the Mining Law of 1872 and if so, what would they be?

Richardson: That we need to change. You can’t sell public lands at—I don’t know what it is, it used to be about five bucks an acre—you need to revise that. But we got to recognize, you got to have a balance between environmental protection and mining. You know, mining provides jobs as long as they abide by all water and all air regulations. It’s an industry that is going well and creates jobs.

Obama: The mining industry plays an important role in the economies of many Western states and helps to provide our country with a supply of important minerals. At the same time, we need to update the Mining Law of 1872 to improve environmental protection and require reasonable compensation for the use of federal land while providing long-term business certainty for the industry. We must also be sure to look out for mining families and mining communities.

Gravel: I was senator from Alaska. I have lived with the pros and cons of the 1872 Mining Law my whole political life, and it is a complex issue. Alaska was in part founded on gold mining, just as Nevada is the largest gold mining center in the world after South Africa. But, as we learned in Alaska, values and priorities change with growth and development of alternative industries. There have been many proposals to modify the 1872 Law to address perceived social, economic and environmental shortcomings of the original law. The economic argument is often stated as one of exploitation of a natural resource for which the U.S. government, hence the public, are not fairly compensated.

Photo By Dennis Myers Bill Richardson on the campaign trail in Nevada.

But there is great inherent risk in undertaking mining and no guarantee of reward. So perhaps without the relative low entry cost for the land in mining, we would not have had the mineral wealth to support our economic development. But, to me the lack of environmental standards in the 1872 Mining Law is the most compelling reason to consider changes to the law. The lack of environmental standards poses serious threats to lakes, rivers, streams and drinking water in Nevada. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates hardrock mining as the nation’s top toxic polluter. I understand that Nevada does not regulate mining—only one of two states not to do so. For a state such as Nevada, with tourism and outdoor recreation significant revenue generators, this seems inconsistent. History has shown that in the U.S., mining companies often go bankrupt when faced with the prospect of expensive restoration commitments—leaving the U.S. and state governments to pay the tab, or the land left scarred and the water poisoned. This is not a legacy I can support for future generations of Nevadans.

Therefore, I would favor revisiting the 1972 Mining Law with an eye to ensuring environmental management during mining and appropriate restoration of the site and off-site impacts once mining has ceased.

Edwards: Without question, the Mining Law is out of date. The U.S. and Nevada governments, the mining industry, environmentalists and other citizens need to work together to improve it. Any changes must ensure a sound future for the mining industry, which brings important middle-class jobs to rural Nevada. At the same time, it is only fair to update the royalties on valuable minerals from public lands. While royalty payments should not take the place of mining companies’ responsibility for cleaning up mining sites—including treating water, restoring habitats for wildlife, and protecting the public—royalties can provide for cleaning up abandoned mines and additional fish and wildlife habitat restoration.

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Clinton: Mining is the backbone of the economy for many communities in rural Nevada and other parts of the West, providing good jobs for mining families and minerals that are important to both industry and our national defense. We need to make sure that mining continues to contribute in all of these ways. At the same time, the Mining Law of 1872 is out of date and should be improved to provide both reasonable compensation for use of federal lands and environmental safeguards, such as enforceable reclamation assurances.

Describe your position on Yucca Mountain.

Richardson: I still believe that Yucca Mountain should not be the receptacle for waste. My position [as U.S. energy secretary] was that high-level wastes should be placed at existing [power plant] sites.

Obama: After spending billions of dollars on Yucca Mountain, there are still significant questions about whether nuclear waste can be safely stored there. So, at this time, I can’t support the Yucca Mountain project and believe we should redirect spending to alternatives, such as improving the safety and security of spent fuel at plant sites around the country. At the same time, we should continue looking for a safe, long-term solution based on sound science.

Gravel: I have personally toured the proposed Yucca Mountain site in February 2006. The site has undergone extensive scientific research and modeling. Science should drive the decision. But, saying that, it is critical that all the science be considered, not just the work of the proponents of Yucca Mountain. Then an impartial, qualified, peer group can evaluate the research and make a recommendation based upon the facts. Certainly the issue of ground water contamination must be thoroughly evaluated, and access to Yucca Mountain appears to be problematic. This needs to be carefully evaluated—the risk of a transit accident may be greater than the risk of a storage-related accident. And the U.S. abandoned waste recycling in the 1970s. France, UK, Russia continued on with reprocessing of spent waste, which dramatically reduces the quantity of high-level waste and provides a source for fueling the power plants, a bit like the way the EGR works on your car—you burn the fuel twice to reduce the waste. And, with the Purex process being used in France and the UK, there is no pure plutonium produced, so there is no risk of nuclear weapons production as a by product. If the U.S. were to adopt this technology, as the January 2007 GNEP—Global Nuclear Energy Partnership Strategic Plan—calls for, a significant amount of the already generated nuclear waste could be reprocessed and the storage requirements reduced dramatically, perhaps eliminating the need for Yucca Mountain to be used at all. Reality is that the reprocessing facility has to be built somewhere, and Yucca could emerge as the site of choice. But this would be as a result of a lengthy site evaluation study. So, my bottom line is, let science drive the decision, and I will propose adopting the recommendation of the GNEP and request funding for a reprocessing facility to reduce the already accumulated waste. Yucca Mountain could become redundant under my proposal.

Edwards: I have serious concerns about moving ahead with Yucca Mountain. Last year, the Secretary of Energy admitted that some government scientists working on the project may have falsified important documents. Other scientists have found that key aspects of the government’s conclusions about the site are not technically supported. Moreover, thousands of shipments of nuclear waste from all over the country could be a target for terrorist attacks.

Clinton: I’ve long opposed using Yucca as a site for nuclear waste. Yucca Mountain is not a suitable place for long-term storage of our nuclear waste. There are too many unanswered questions about both the geology of the site and integrity of the science done to support the decision to store waste there. The Bush Administration’s latest announcement that it will continue to pursue its misguided policy on Yucca Mountain is very disappointing. It’s past time to start exploring alternatives to Yucca Mountain because we need to find a safe, secure, long-term waste storage solution. As president, I would work with the scientific community to address this problem and come up with alternative solutions.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...