Tenth Circuit to Decide Whether NEPA Requires Impacts from Water Diversion Project to Be Analyzed Based On Maximum Achievable Diversions

Posted on May 13, 2013 by Thomas Hnasko

On February 11, 2013, the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico denied a Motion for Preliminary Injunction filed by the Village of Logan, seeking to compel the Bureau of Reclamation (“BOR”) to perform an environmental impact statement (“EIS”) for the Ute Lake Diversion Project in eastern New Mexico.  The BOR issued an environmental assessment (“EA”), which analyzed the impacts from the diversion project based on the withdrawal of only 16,450 acre-feet per year (“af/yr”), despite the fact that the intake structure capacity is 24,000 af/yr.  The BOR contended that the intake structure did not have sufficient pumping capacity and other infrastructure to achieve 24,000 af/yr.

At the preliminary injunction hearing, Logan presented evidence that the Interstate Stream Commission of New Mexico (“ISC”), as the putative owner of the water rights within Ute Lake, had contracted to sell 24,000 af/yr and that the engineering analysis demonstrated sufficient existing capacity within the intake structure to accommodate withdrawals of 24,000 af/yr.  Consequently, similar to analyses required under other environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, Logan argued that the impacts from the proposed project must be analyzed based on the maximum achievable withdrawal capacity of the intake structure.

The difference in the severity of impacts, based on 24,000 acre-feet withdrawals and 16,450 acre-feet withdrawals, was significant.  The EA conceded that, at 24,000 acre-feet per year, the minimum fisheries pool in Ute Lake – established to provide a minimum necessary habitat for recreational fishing – would be breached at least 20% of the time over a 30-year period.  Allowing the fisheries pool to be breached for at least 6 years over the life of the project created inter-related economic impacts, including significantly decreased property values on the shoreline, decreased tax receipts for the community, lost jobs, and significantly declining revenue for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

The district court ruled that the EA, together with its finding of no significant impact (“FONSI”), was not arbitrary and capricious based on the assumption that the withdrawals would only reach 16,450 af/yr.  The Court stated that, “If in the future, more infrastructure is added to facilitate further withdrawals, primary analysis of the environmental impact may be undertaken then.”  The Court did not state whether such a “primary analysis” would occur within or outside of NEPA, and who would be responsible for initiating such an analysis.  Moreover, assuming that the Court meant an analysis of “direct impacts” by the phrase “primary analysis,” it is unclear how such an analysis would not suffer from predetermination under NEPA.  After all, the intake structure would already be built and there could not be any serious consideration of viable alternatives to the project.

The central issue on appeal is whether a federal agency may postpone part of its NEPA analysis to some unspecified time in the future, despite the fact that the capacity of the project, and the ability to withdraw 24,000 af/yr, is likely a “foreseeable” impact as defined in the Council on Environmental Quality regulations.