Farming in Callao

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Who is watching the federal agencies?

A New York Times editorial -- A Fresh Start for the Gunnison River (09-30-06) -- lamented an agreement entered into by the National Park Service (under pressure from then Department of Interior [DOI] chief Gale Norton) relinquishing water rights in Black Canyon of the Gunnison River National Park. Fortunately, Judge Clarence Brimmer voided the agreement as "“arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion."

The Park Service was willing to cede water rights in aid of land development upstream along Colorado's Front Range. The agreement would have eliminated "peak flow" -- a cyclical, higher-than-normal flow that helps keep streams and rivers healthy. The agreement was negotiated without public scrutiny, which was the basis of Judge Brimmer'’s decision.

The editorial ends: "The agreement was also one of the clearest examples of the Bush administration's willingness to ignore science in favor of politics. Discarding it was the right thing to do, but it would have been far better if Ms. Norton and the National Park Service had paid attention to the conclusions of their own scientists in the first place."

Here we go again

What does this have to do with Snake Valley's fight against the scheme to export water to Las Vegas? In the opening moments of hearings just completed, concerning water rights applications in neighboring Nevada basin Spring Valley, SNWA announced a stipulation agreement with the DOI in behalf of four agencies: National Park Service (NPS), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

That agreement also was completed without public scrutiny. The Goshute Tribe, based in Ibapah, Utah rightfully expressed anger about not being consulted prior to the signing of the agreement by BIA (see Goshute press release).

The agreement contains no triggers to cause pre-determined actions (such as pumping less water or shutting off pumps). It calls for monitor wells (although SNWA gets a veto over locations). Impacts detected in Spring Valley would be addressed by a monitoring/mitigation committee comprised of SNWA and federal agency personnel. Wording allows SNWA to take unilateral action if the committee cannot decide on actions within a year of the impact being raised (which could be several months or years after the impact actually begins developing).

The federal agencies withdrew their water rights protests for an opportunity to monitor the situation as it goes south (so to speak) and for a forum in which to talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.

Prior to the agreement's signing, NPS hydrologists ran a model SNWA hyped in the water rights hearing. SNWA witnesses testified there is insufficient data to run the model predictively. The NPS results were similar to runs from a model created by hydrologist Dr. Tom Meyers, who predicted water table drawdowns of hundreds of feet with protracted pumping. SNWA got the NPS model results stricken from the hearing records, citing stipulation agreement conditions.

SNWA did not want to negotiate separately with these four agencies so after SNWA whined to Washington DC, the DOI appointed a liaison and began pressing the agencies to reach consensus on an agreement with SNWA. While this cozy arrangement makes life easier for SNWA, it does not make sense for the agencies or for the general public. Each of these four agencies has its own unique mandate. The NPS logically has different concerns about the water export scheme than does the BIA, FWS, or BLM. Why should they get their heads together and sign a one-size-fits-all agreement? Unless this is a political decision as much as it is a scientific decision.

This fits the DOI pattern emerging in the media, from so many different angles. The rich and powerful (of which Las Vegas abounds) have special ins with the DOI. The resulting anemic Spring Valley agreement is a result.

When it comes time for the Nevada Engineer to begin holding water rights hearings on Snake Valley can we expect another secret agreement and an announcement of another DOI public sellout?

New York Times editorial (requires free registration) Also see Rocky Mountain News

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