Congress shuts down what activists see as attempt to speed up Lake Powell pipeline
A push by U.S. Senator Mike Lee from Utah to pass an amendment to the INVEST in America Act – which some see as a thinly veiled attempt to bypass federal environmental review requirements in order to speed up the Lake Powell pipeline project – failed by a narrow voting margin in Congress Wednesday evening.
Forty-seven Republican senators voted in favor of the amendment, which introduces a provision for water infrastructure in a transport bill. But fifty votes were cast against, including those of 48 Democratic senators and the two senators from Maine, one of whom is registered as a Republican and the other as an independent.
Two Republican senators and an independent did not vote. The amendment would have required a 60% qualified majority vote to pass.
the INVEST in America Act was presented to the House in June as a plan to revitalize transportation infrastructure across the country. The bill’s summary mentions initiatives to fund road improvements and transportation safety programs, rebuild and repair rural bridges, and assess strategies to reduce the impacts of climate change on transportation surfaces, to name a few. only a few. It did not deal specifically with water infrastructure.
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Lee’s amendment to the law seeks to “establish a project implementation program under the National Environmental Policy Act 1969 (NEPA) for water storage infrastructure projects.”
Given that the controversial Lake Powell pipeline project, pursued by Utah leaders for decades, is currently tied to the NEPA environmental review process while public comment on the proposed study of environmental impact are taken into account, regional environmental groups interpreted this decision as an attempt. weaken environmental laws in order to move the project forward.
“The promoters of the pipeline at Lake Powell will do everything possible to try to bring their boondoggle to life with as little public input as possible,” Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, said in a press release. As drought continues to siphon water from the river, we need our basic laws to remain intact in order to protect our communities, our resources and our future in the country’s driest states.
The Washington County Water Conservancy District (WCWCD) - the main proponent of the Lake Powell pipeline project with the Utah Water Resources Division – however, responded to a request for comment on its position on Lee’s amendment, stating that “there is no correlation between HR 3684 and the Lake Powell pipeline”.
the Lake Powell Pipeline Project would transport up to 28 billion gallons of water per year through a 140-mile underground pipeline from Lake Powell to the Sand Hollow Reservoir to meet the needs of growing Washington County. Estimated to cost between $ 1 billion and $ 4 billion, the project has been controversial, with some local groups claiming water conservation is the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution. WCWCD, meanwhile, maintains that water conservation alone could not make a sufficient difference to support local population projections.
The project has also seen resistance from across the Colorado River basin. Last fall, the other six states that rely on river water sent a letter to the Home Secretary asking that the project not be approved because it would draw on a shared water source which is already severely strained by the drought.
Water levels in both Powell Lake and Lake Mead are currently at record levels, which has affected hydroelectric power generation at the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams, as well as recreational opportunities in the reservoirs, as lower lake levels make the ramps out. inaccessible water.
“Anyone who thinks Utah has surplus water from the Colorado River should go talk to the people who had to pull their barges out of Lake Powell,” Zach Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council, said in a statement. hurry.
Last month Roerink, Frankel and other waters activists gathered at the Hoover Dam to protest all new infrastructure projects that would siphon more water from the declining Colorado River. The Lake Powell pipeline is the most important of these and, although Utah insists it has the legal rights to the water it intends to take – and even created a new government agency this spring to strategize on how to get it – growing scientific evidence suggests the total amount of water available is just not what it used to be when the shares of the river were divided among the western states almost a hundred years ago.
In light of these hurdles facing the Lake Powell Pipeline Project, and despite WCWCD’s claims that there is no connection, environmentalists suspect that the proposed changes to the INVEST in America Act, who understand more than the one rejected on Wednesday, aim to weaken the federal environmental review process intended to estimate and manage the negative impacts of such projects by accelerating or exempting them from the NEPA process and by transferring regulatory and licensing decisions to states.
It wouldn’t be the first time the GOP has taken steps to dismantle parts of the NEPA environmental review process to pave the way for more infrastructure projects. Last summer, a group of environmental and outdoor organizations sued the Trump administration on its efforts to relax federal requirements that agencies consider public comments before launching new projects.
“[Trump’s] various executive orders put pressure on agencies to go faster, especially with these expensive construction projects, ”Susan Jane Brown, lawyer at the Western Environmental Law Center, said at the time.
The changes to the agency’s public comment review would still have possible implications for three major projects in southern Utah that are currently stuck in the environmental review process: the Lake Powell pipeline, the Northern Corridor motorway project and Iron County Pine Valley Water Supply Project.
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Environmentalists fear these changes to the NEPA process initiated by the Trump administration last fall, combined with Utah’s new Colorado River Authority exemption this spring from laws requiring public access to the minutes. meetings and now Mike Lee’s recent amendment to fast-track water projects amounts to a tendency to exclude citizens from decisions that affect how our shared natural resources are managed.
“Pipeline lobbyists have been planning this legislation for a month, but they have blocked the public from knowing what they were doing until the last possible second,” Frankel said.
Joan Meiners is the environmental reporter for The Spectrum & Daily News as part of The Ground Truth Project’s Report for America initiative. Support his work by make a donation to these nonprofit programs today. Follow Joan on Twitter at @beecycles or email her at [email protected]