Environews: September 2017
Environmental news from around the state and the West.
I walk the Bear all summer as it builds strength again, widens into marshes, joins in lush bird-heavy congress with the great peculiar Salt, a lake that would surely die if not for this river, this path, this milk and honey. —from Walking the Bear: poems by Star Coulbrooke (Outlaw Artists Press, 2015)
Is Utah running out of water? The math says no
“If you ask most people in Utah if we are we running out of water, they say, oh, absolutely,” says Zach Frankel, Executive Director of the Utah River Council (URC). But the conventional wisdom is wrong.
During a field trip to proposed Bear River Project dam sites in Cache Valley near Logan, Utah, Frankel explained that 85% of Utah’s water goes to agriculture; that means less than 15% goes to municipal uses including houses and lawns, so even with population growth there is plenty of wiggle room.
However, even if no agricultural water shifts to municipal use, Utah still doesn’t need huge, expensive water projects to supply water to cities and towns. Water projections from the State of Utah assume that people will use 295 gallons per person per day, a huge amount that is much larger than other Western desert cities.
URC thought the number sounded suspiciously high, and when they double-checked the numbers they discovered that instead of averaging water data from a period of years, the State had cherry-picked the single highest data point. What’s more, the State’s data were so bad that they had accidentally substituted water use data from Saratoga Springs, New York for data from Saratoga Springs, Utah.
“Utah doesn’t know how much water Utahns are using or how much we will need,” Frankel says, “They actually didn’t have the data.”
Some U.S. cities encourage conservation with incentives; for instance, one strategy that works is to have a standard allotment of household water that is cheap or even free, but then to raise the price for water use beyond the normal threshold. By contrast, Utah hides the true cost of water in property tax bills so that people can’t tell how much they are actually spending, and charges essentially the same rate no matter how much water people use.
The irony is, to preserve the illusion of cheap water, taxpayers are being asked to subsidize expensive billion dollar water developments that will make Utah’s future water astronomically expensive. When the price of water goes up, conservation will inevitably kick in, but it will be after large-scale environmental damage has already been done.
According to URC, all Utah has to do in order to avoid running out of water is achieve the same water use per capita as Denver, Colorado. It seems clear that Utah water policy is being driven by big-money construction contracts, not by actual water needs.
Utah Rivers Council: utahrivers.org
Bear River Coalition opposes raising Cutler Dam
The Bear River Coalition opposes a proposal by PacifiCorp (the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power) to raise the height of Cutler Dam on the Bear River.
PacifiCorp is trying to sell the proposal as a water storage project, but in fact Cutler reservoir is so shallow that increasing the surface area would cause more water to evaporate than what would be stored.
Raising the dam would also result in a host of negative consequences: flooding bird rookeries and farmland in Cache Valley, raising water levels so that boats and canoes could not pass under bridges, and forcing Cache County to redesign roads. At the same time, blocking water flow could cause tens of thousands of acres of Great Salt Lake wetlands to dry up.
The Cutler hydroelectric dam has become silted up so that it is only generating about 30% capacity so there is a problem, but critics say that PacifiCorps should dredge silt from the reservoir. PacifiCorps is resisting that option because they could use public funds if they call it a water project, but they would have to pay for dredging themselves.
Utah Rivers Council is the lead organization for the Bear River Coalition, a group of conservationists, hunters, birders and farmers trying to stop water diversions from the Bear River.
Bear River Coalition: savethebearriver.org; Don’t Raise Cutler! dontraisecutler.org
Promentory Point landfill
Promontory Point, a remote and unspoiled place on the shore of Great Salt Lake previously famous for being the meeting of the transcontinental railroad, is about to become a garbage dump. Promontory Point Resources, LLC, is developing a 981-acre landfill on private land at the tip of Promontory Point using the Union Pacific railroad causeway and local roads to access the remote location.
The company has applied for a Class V permit which would allow accepting out-of-state waste.
West Davis Corridor impacts expand
It seems inevitable that the environmental footprint of the West Davis Corridor freeway has already increased before any of the new freeway has even been built. In August, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) applied for a permit to infill an additional 50.54 acres of wetlands, over the 4,416 acres of wetland bird habitat.
Documents: spk.usace.army.mil/Media/RegulatoryPublicNotices.aspx. Written comments due September 12: Matthew.S.Wilson@usace.army.mil.
Secret Zinke meetings spark lawsuit
County commissioners from Kane and Garfield Counties may have broken Utah law when they held closed-door meetings with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke concerning the possibility of shrinking the size of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has filed a lawsuit accusing the commissioners of violating Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act and trying to “shield important public policy matters from the light of day.”
Zinke visited Utah in May 2017 after President Trump issued an executive order worded in such a way so as to specifically threaten reductions of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah.
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance: suwa.org
Stewart introduces sham habitat protection bill
Utah Congressman Chris Stewart (R-UT-2) has introduced a sham bill that he says will protect habitat for mule deer and sage grouse, but it’s really just another trick to try to eliminate environmental review of projects on federal public lands.
The “Sage-Grouse and Mule Deer Habitat Conservation and Restoration Act” would establish “a categorical exclusion for covered vegetative management activities carried out to establish or improve habitat for greater sage-grouse and mule deer.” Which means that any project to remove juniper trees and piñon pine would be automatically labeled “habitat protection” even if the project involved chaining, burning, pesticides, cattle grazing, removal of wild horses or other methods that result in severe environmental impacts.
The bill is endorsed by “The Mule Deer Foundation,” a group affiliated with Don Peay and his network of organizations that pretend to support hunters while actually pushing an agenda of wildlife privatization, predator extermination, and trophy hunting.
Methane rule survives GOP attack
The 2017 Conservation in the West poll from Colorado College showed that 81% of Western voters agreed with the statement, “We should continue to require oil and gas producers who operate on national public lands to use updated equipment and technology to prevent leaks of methane gas during the extraction process and reduce the need to burn off excess natural gas in the air.”
That statement describes the so-called “methane rule” which the Trump Administration tried to eliminate as a supposed example of government overreach.
However, the U.S. Senate voted against repeal, and in July a federal court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency cannot suspend the methane rule.
Methane released by oil and gas drilling contributes to global climate change and has caused severe air quality problems in Utah’s Duchesne and Uintah Counties.