Nev. landowners say they’ve begun razing wildlife refuge dam

By Jennifer Yachnin | 08/04/2022 01:22 PM EDT

Carson Slough runs through Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge on July 29.

Carson Slough runs through Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge on July 29. Patrick Donnelly/Center for Biological Diversity.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials failed Saturday to dissuade Nevada landowners from their planned demolition of an earthen dam at the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge but did not intervene to stop initial work.

Ministerio Roca Solida founder Victor Fuentes revealed Tuesday that he began dredging a channel across public lands adjacent to his 40-acre church camp, dubbed Patch of Heaven.

“I reclaimed my right. I didn’t do anything illegal Saturday,” Fuentes told radio host and anti-government activist Pete Santilli in an interview posted on YouTube.

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Despite warnings from FWS that he faces arrest and prosecution, Fuentes said he plans to continue his work at the site, about 70 miles northwest of Las Vegas, in the coming days.

“We start to get our water back. We haven’t got it into the camp yet,” said Fuentes, who emigrated from Cuba in 1991. “But we have started. The following week I’m going to continue working to make the water available to us.”

Fuentes and his wife, Annette, have sparred with the federal government for more than a decade over water rights in the Nevada desert. Neither the Fuenteses nor their attorney could be reached for comment.

In a statement to E&E News this week, FWS Pacific Southwest Region spokesperson Jackie D’Almeida said agency officials met with the Nevada couple, their attorney, Nye County Commissioner Debra Strickland and Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly on Saturday morning.

“We will continue to work with the private landowner and the State of Nevada as we seek a resolution to this matter,” D’Almeida said.

When the couple purchased the property, which sits within the boundaries of the wildlife refuge, in 2006, it featured a stream sufficient to fill a small pool where baptisms were performed.

But in 2010, the federal government erected a diversion on the Carson Slough to safeguard the endangered Ash Meadows speckled dace (Greenwire, April 23, 2018).

That project also dried out the stream that cut through the camp.

The Fuenteses claimed a victory in 2016, when the Nevada Division of Water Resources ordered FWS to return a “historic use” flow of 0.003 cubic foot per second — or 1,938 gallons per day — to the campground.

Fuentes asserted that system, a small pipe that funnels water to his camp, routinely stalls, most recently in mid-July.

“They are denying us our right and our water from day 1 that they installed the system,” Fuentes said Tuesday.

Despite that state victory, the couple has not found success in the federal court system.

In October. the U.S. Court of Federal Claims dismissed the Fuenteses’ claims that the FWS diversion created flood conditions on their property, resulting in more than $3 million in damages (Greenwire, Oct. 26, 2021).

The Fuenteses are also awaiting a decision from the state engineer on a new permit that would allow them more water — 0.07 cubic feet per second, or 45,233 gallons per day — but environmentalists and the Bureau of Land Management have protested their application.

Entrance to Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in 2018.
Entrance to Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in 2018.
| Jennifer Yachnin/E&E News

Those objections argue altering the current flow of Carson Slough could degrade habitat that is home to endangered or threatened plants and aquatic species.

Frustrated with their lack of success, Victor Fuentes announced at a Nye County commissioners meeting last month that he planned to raze the earthen dam and “reopen” the waterway (Greenwire, July 29).

In a July 28 letter to the Fuenteses, Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex project leader Kevin DesRoberts warned that demolition of the dam could result in criminal or civil penalties for violating a host of laws, including the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Both Victor and Annette Fuentes told Santilli, the radio host, that federal officials reiterated the possibility of arrest and prosecution during their Saturday meeting, which the Fuenteses said they initiated as a gesture of “reconciliation.”

Annette Fuentes added that while FWS officials said they could record any damage and seek an indictment, the agency did not plan to intervene or attempt to block the demolition.

“They said they’re going to stand down. They didn’t want a Bundy situation,” said Annette Fuentes, referring to the 2014 armed standoff between Bureau of Land Management agents and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.

Santelli, who struck a plea deal over his own participation in the Bundy standoff, ultimately being credited for the 21 months he spent in prison, also repeatedly referred to that incident during the interview (Greenwire, Oct. 9, 2017).

“Don’t make me come back out there. Because I’ll come with Jesus next time,” said Santelli, in a broad warning to federal officials in Nevada.

Victor Fuentes sought to tamp down suggestions of violence, stating: “Our mission is to save souls and to save people, not to kill them.”

Still, Fuentes also dismissed concerns about his potential arrest: “I’m ready to pay the price. I’m ready to fight legally for my right and the right of the people.”

Environmentalists who have challenged the Fuenteses’ latest water rights application urged FWS to closely monitor activity at the refuge.

“We are extremely concerned about damage done to one of the crown jewels of our national wildlife refuge system, and any harm that may have come to the dozens of rare species that live there,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We urge the Fish and Wildlife Service to investigate this incident and, if appropriate, prosecute any potential crimes to the fullest extent of the law.”

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