From spent nuclear fuel to Medicaid expansion to cutting state regulations, Idaho had some big changes in 2019.
RENO, Nev. (AP) | At Douglas County's Bently Ranch, these days the backup is squarely up front.
Reclaimed wastewater is used to water crops late every irrigation season, but this year, during a protracted drought, it's largely what's keeping the place in the business of agriculture.
"If we were just on surface water, we would have stopped irrigating a month ago. We'd be dry," said Matt McKinney, ranch manager. "Now we can go all summer long. It's a lifesaver."
It was a decade ago that the ranch's founder, inventor and philanthropist Donald Bently, first signed a contract with the sewer districts serving Minden-Gardnerville and Lake Tahoe's Zephyr Cove area to receive effluent water for irrigation use.
All winter long, treated wastewater is pumped from the two sewer districts to a reservoir built on ranch property. Come summer, the water is used to irrigate Bently Ranch's primary crop, high-quality alfalfa hay, which is in turn sold as cattle feed to dairy farms in California.
Bently Ranch also receives "biosolids" from the wastewater plants — a combination of fecal matter and household garbage put down sink disposals — which is combined with wood chips and green yard waste to ultimately produce fertilizer in the only such major composting operation now existing in Northern Nevada.
It's agriculture with a full-circle, sustainable philosophy that is now paying off big-time.
At Bently, the drought has posed the same challenges as it has to farms and ranches across Nevada. Back-to-back dry winters produced a dismal Sierra snowpack that drains into the lush agricultural fields of the Carson Valley, with the past winter the worst one yet. On April 1, the Carson River Basin's snowpack was officially measured at 4 percent of normal for the date, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.
"It was the lowest in history," McKinney said. "Every year we have a certain amount of water, but this year that pie was pretty small."
As he had the previous two drought years, McKinney sold off some of Bently Ranch's beef cattle, with about 600 sold in all thus far due to worsening drought conditions. McKinney fallowed some 500 acres that otherwise would have supported alfalfa or other crops grown at Bently Ranch such as wheat, rye, barley and oats.
The situation looked dire, with McKinney predicting the ranch would be cut off from all Carson River irrigation water by June 1. Then came that unusually wet May — a blessing to agriculture across the state — that dropped rain particularly beneficial to pastures used for grazing the ranch's cattle.
Once the benefits of those spring rains faded away, Bently's unique irrigation source of reclaimed water came fully into play. In a drought year where many Nevada growers have had to substantially cut back on their alfalfa crops, McKinney expects to get three full cuttings and a portion of a fourth.
"That's where that effluent water is saving my butt," McKinney said. "Mr. Bently was always forward thinking. When that water became available, he jumped at it."
The contract making that water available remains in place another 65 years, guaranteeing continued long-term access to what has proven to be a crucial backup supply of water.
Benefits are also enjoyed by the sewer districts and their customers, with Bently providing a ready location to dispose of both effluent water and the solids used for composting that otherwise would have to be taken to a landfill at significant expense, said Frank Johnson, manager of the Minden-Gardnerville Sanitation District.
"It works out for us because we have a place to dispose of it, which is beneficial for us and them," Johnson said. "It works out for everybody."
"The effluent is waste that we in agriculture can make use of," McKinney agreed. "We're making it into a product. Before it was just waste. We have an insurance policy, or money in the bank, whatever you want to call it."
BOISE • The U.S. Department of Energy has given Idaho a two-month deadline to waive parts of an agreement to clean up nuclear waste at a federal facility in southeast Idaho or lose doing important research work on spent nuclear fuel, an Idaho official says.
Idaho Department of Commerce Director Jeff Sayer in a letter to Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter dated Monday said the federal agency plans to send a 2016 shipment elsewhere if it’s not allowed into the Idaho National Laboratory.
Sayer said the acting assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy, John Kotek, in mid-July told Idaho officials about the agency’s plans. Sayer said that confirmed fears Idaho was in danger of losing the research work that would bring millions of dollars to the state.
“Mr. Kotek’s comments removed ambiguity from this issue and clearly state that what was an earlier speculation is now a definitive reality,” Sayer wrote.
The Office of Nuclear Energy didn’t return a call from The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Sayer, besides directing the lead economic development agency in the state, is also a member of the Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission, or LINE Commission. The commission was created by Otter through an executive order, and its purpose is to recommend to the governor policies and actions that support the Idaho National Laboratory and the economic benefits it offers to the state.
The Department of Energy wants to do research at the Idaho lab on “high burnup” spent fuel that’s accumulating at nuclear power plants in the U.S. High burnup fuel remains in nuclear reactor cores longer to produce more energy, but it comes out more radioactive and hotter. It’s cooled in pools before being encased in steel and concrete.
The Idaho National Laboratory would examine the spent fuel to determine how its properties change and what that means for storage at power plant sites and eventual removal for permanent storage. Scientists are also interested in recycling the fuel rods. Nuclear scientists at the Idaho facility say they can safely handle the spent fuel rods.
U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in a letter to Otter dated Dec. 16 said funding for the research associated with the nuclear waste could bring up to $20 million annually through the end of the decade.
However, the Department of Energy is in violation in two areas of a 1995 agreement hammered out with Idaho officials who were concerned the 890-square-mile federal site was being turned into a nuclear waste dump.
Malfunctions with a $571 million facility called the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit continue to cause delays turning 900,000 gallons of liquid waste into a solid form. The high-level radioactive waste came from processing spent nuclear fuel from U.S. Navy ships and is stored in tanks.
The second violation is because an underground nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico is not taking shipments of low-level waste because of mishaps at that facility, leaving the waste stuck in Idaho past deadlines set in the 1995 agreement.
Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has told federal officials that the state won’t accept the spent fuel rods until the Department of Energy shows it can successfully process the liquid waste.
Sayer, in his letter to Otter, said Wasden was jeopardizing future research projects at the Idaho lab.
Wasden, in a statement to The Associated Press on Tuesday, said he understood the importance of the proposed shipment and the significance of the Idaho National Laboratory’s role as a lead spent fuel research facility.
“I’m deeply disappointed that Mr. Sayer would write a letter on behalf of the Line Commission in which he outlines his understanding of my views without ever talking to me about my position and efforts,” Wasden said. “I fully intend to have a conversation with Mr. Sayer.”