The National Environmental Policy Act: What Constitutes Segmentation and a “Direct” Environmental Impact?

Posted on February 14, 2014 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 failed to analyze the foreseeable impacts to Ute Lake based on the design capacity of the intake structure to withdraw 24,000 acre-feet per year (“af/yr”). The BOR contended that, while contracts had been issued to deliver the full 24,000 af/yr of water, the project which it funded was limited to withdrawals from the lake of only 16,450 af/yr. Significantly, the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of 16,450 af/yr paled in comparison to the projected impacts resulting from withdrawals of 24,000 af/yr.

The briefs in the Tenth Circuit present an issue of first impression under NEPA. That is, can the BOR defer an analysis of certain impacts it knows will occur in the future, and summarily discuss those deleterious impacts under the rubric of “cumulative” rather than “direct” effects? According to the Department of Justice, Logan’s complaint about the matter is only one of “nomenclature,” and it should not matter whether the effects are deemed “direct” or “cumulative.” In response, Logan argues that the difference is one of substance, as an analysis of “cumulative” effects of a project does not require a comparison of the project to reasonably available alternatives, whereas an analysis of foreseeable “direct” effects, i.e., withdrawals up to the capacity of the intake structure, would require a vigorous comparison to available alternatives. These alternatives, which received only a one-half page discussion in the EA’s section on cumulative effects, include retirement of wasteful irrigation groundwater rights to augment municipal water supplies in eastern New Mexico. According to Logan, allowing the BOR to analyze a plainly foreseeable “direct” effect as merely “cumulative” would result in the illegal segmentation of the project. If such a result were sanctioned, there would be no NEPA analysis ever undertaken of the effects between 16,450 af/yr and 24,000 af/yr.

Oral argument is scheduled for March 17, 2014.



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