Environmental Politics, Think
Environews: August 2012
Drought strikes Utah; Water/oil shale don’t mix; Wildfires set Utah abalze; Emery County attacks Utah wilderness; Red Butte Creek oil free?
—by Amy Brunvand
Drought strikes Utah
Utah’s snowless 2011-12 ski season was an omen of a very dry year and in July, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack held a press conference to report that 61% of the U.S. is currently affected by drought.
According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, Utah experienced the 8th warmest spring on record. As of July 2012, drought conditions covered nearly all of Colorado, most of Utah and about half of Wyoming, with impacts that include very low streamflows and reduced water supplies, poor range, pasture, and dryland crop conditions, and destructive wildfires.
As a result of the dry conditions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared disaster areas in 20 Utah counties, making farmers eligible for federal aid. The drought is spreading and intensifying and all of Utah is considered vulnerable to drought.
Asked whether the drought is related to climate change secretary Vilsack responded that he is not a scientist, but whatever the cause, Congress needs to help provide disaster relief. After a Christian reporter asked whether people had been encouraged to pray and fast in response to the disaster, Vilsack reiterated that If Congress doesn’t act, the USDA has limited options to help.
Water/oil shale don’t mix
Water quality concerns raised by Western Resource Advocates and Living Rivers have put the brakes on plans by Red Leaf Resources and the State of Utah to rush into large-scale oil shale strip-mining.
“Everybody agrees that Red Leaf and the State of Utah were trying to do too much, too quickly, and without enough information,” said Rob Dubuc, Staff Attorney for Western Resource Advocates. “This project should not move forward until the company can prove that there are no risks of contaminating groundwater.”
Wildfires set Utah ablaze
By July, drought conditions in Utah had resulted in over 600 wildlands fires that burned nearly 400,000 acres and forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes.
More than 400 of the fires were started by humans, and at least 20 resulted from target shooting. But Utah law makes it nearly impossible to protect public safety by limiting spark-producing activities like target shooting and fireworks. Utah Governor Gary Herbert blamed the fires on “a lack of common sense” and insisted that gun rights and local control are a priority, even as people watched their homes and farms burn to the ground.
Emery County attacks Utah wilderness
The draft “Emery County Public Lands Management Act” would affect federal public land in Desolation Canyon, Labyrinth Canyon, San Rafael Swell, San Rafael Desert and Mussentuchit Badlands. Yet it was written without any input from wilderness supporters, after off-road vehicle interests refused an offer to work with a facilitator, according to the Utah Wilderness Coalition.
For a while it seemed hopeful that Emery County might emulate the process that led to the 2009 Washington County Wilderness Bill which was considered a model of how stakeholders can work together to solve contentious public land disputes. But since then, Governor Gary Herbert has supported extremist anti-federalist legislators to reignite bitter public lands battles of the past, and Senator Mike Lee has encouraged Emery County officials to believe that he can help them push the bad bill through the Utah Legislature and U.S. Congress.
Among the more appalling aspects of the bill are a proposal to punch off-road vehicle routes through roadless areas including a trail in the streambed of Muddy Creek, to open Desolation Canyon to coal mining, and to eliminate protection for land adjacent to Capitol Reef National Park and the Green River in Labyrinth Canyon.
“If Emery charges ahead and succeeds in getting this bill introduced in Congress, we will either kill it or fix it so that it is a step forward for protecting the Redrock,” says Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “We’ve already done that over a dozen times in the past 20 years.”
Red Butte Creek oil free?
Two years after a June 2010 Chevron pipeline oil spill contaminated Red Butte Creek, a Utah Divison of Environmental Quality report says that Red Butte water quality is now similar to other Salt Lake area urban creeks, which is to say, not entirely free of oil but no more that is in creeks that weren’t affected by the spill. A final determination on the success of the cleanup will be made after the public comment period on the report ends on August 13.