Saturday, September 30, 2023
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Agency ‘Cut Corners’ in Review of Water Project

(CN) - The Bureau of Reclamation "wasted years by cutting corners and looking for shortcuts" in its environmental analysis of a plan to redirect 3.5 billion gallons of water from Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River to rural communities in northwestern North Dakota, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled.

Manitoba, Canada, sued the Department of the Interior for its approval of the Northwest Area Water Supply (NAWS) Project, saying the environmental assessment violated U.S. environmental law.

Manitoba said the bulk water distribution system did not consider the risks of transferring fish and microscopic organisms to the Hudson Bay Basin, which threatened to devastate indigenous fish, plants and animals.

The Bureau of Reclamation issued an environmental impact statement, but Manitoba and Missouri claimed it didn't go far enough. (Missouri had sued the agency separately.)

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that the bureau failed to consider the cumulative impact of multiple projects. The federal agency considered one alternative for the water-supply project - drawing water from wells in the Hudson Bay Basin - but it failed to examine any other existing water projects taking water from the Missouri River when it approved the NAWS project, the judge noted.

"All it did was look at the project in isolation and conclude that the amount of water the project alone is expected to withdraw is too small to impact the water level of Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River," Collyer wrote. "That is a glance at the issue, not a 'hard look.'"

The bureau also failed to analyze the possibility of the water pipeline breaking, which could be "catastrophic" due to the release of fish, plants and organisms, or the plan to remove the water from its Missouri River source before treating it, the judge ruled.

Collyer ordered the agency to look at the cumulative impacts of the project, including the consequences of transferring fish and other organisms to the Hudson Bay Basin, which might impact Canada.

"The court is acutely aware that Reclamation and North Dakota have built miles of pipeline and that the citizens of the area want the project completed," Collyer wrote. "These facts do not excuse Reclamation's failure to follow the law. This case demonstrates the adage that it is better to do something right the first time. Reclamation has wasted years by cutting corners and looking for shortcuts."

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