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Well wars

Cally Carswell | Dec 15, 2009 03:24 AM

With water rights dating to 1865, you wouldn’t expect Joseph Miller to worry about the security of his water supply. But to Miller, the new homes and subdivisions popping up in Montana’s Gallatin Valley, where he owns a 500-acre ranch, are plenty of cause for concern. Miller suspects those developments, which pump groundwater from permit-exempt wells, have dried up at least one stream on his ranch.

To address the problem, Miller and a few other ranchers recently petitioned Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to stop letting residential developments use exempt wells to skirt the state’s water laws. They claim exempt wells will draw down water supplies that they have senior rights to.

In Montana, groundwater wells pumping less than 35 gallons a minute and no more than 10 acre feet a year don’t require a permit and aren't regulated under prior appropriation during drought. A 60-lot subdivision, for instance, can legally drill 60 wells into the same aquifer without permits or environmental review as long as those wells aren't connected. Even though the law says the exemption doesn't cover a "combined appropriation" by multiple wells from the same source if, together, they suck more than 35 gallons a minute, the state only considers wells that are physically connected by pipes to be a "combined appropriation."

"There’s really no protection in place for senior water rights," says Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, which filed the petition on the ranchers’ behalf. Bishop says the state has known exempt wells are a problem "for a number of years," but "no one’s been willing to fix it."

"We felt we had to force the issue," he says.

According to the petition, there are some 200,000 exempt wells in Montana, a figure that could grow by as many as 78,000 wells in the next 10 years. The petitioners are asking the state the throw out its current interpretation of combined appropriation and initiate rulemaking to come up with a new one. According to Bishop, the state has 60 days to respond. If the petition is denied, he expects to challenge the state in court.

Meanwhile, a similar battle in Kittitas County, Wash., which I wrote about in October, is still dragging on

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An official state microbe

Ed Quillen | Dec 12, 2009 07:48 AM

      Colorado may not hold the record for "Official State Whatevers," but it's got to come close with both a state rock and a state gemstone, two official state songs, a state insect and a state reptile, as well as the usual flower, bird, fish, tree, mammal and the like.
 
    But Wisconsin may be on its way to something new: an official state microbe, the Lactococcus lactis. As you might have guessed, it has something to do with cheese -- it's the bacterium that changes milk into cheese.
 
    L. lactis promoters say it highlights an important industry in the Badger State.
 
    No argument there, but as a Coloradan, accustomed to a new Official State Something every couple of years after a grade-school class somewhere decides to lobby the legislature, I wonder what our microbe will be.
 
    Since Colorado (as of 2006, anyway) leads the nation in beer production, the obvious candidates might be Saccharomyces cerevisiae and S. pastorianus, the two most popular varieties of brewing yeast.
 
    But why imitate Winconsin by focusing on the economic contributions of a microbe? One that deserves more attention to is Giardia lamblia, found in nearly every mountain stream. It causes nausea and diarrhea, also known as "Chief Ouray's Revenge."
 
    If it were better known, high-country hikers might be less prone to drink from those pristine-looking mountain creeks that tumble through the rocks. Fewer visitors would get ill, thereby improving the state's reputation as a tourist destination.
 
    But I doubt any legislator is willing to introduce a bill making G. lamblia our official state microbe, which would lead to giardiasis becoming our official state infection, and who knows what would come after that?

 


 

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Feels like teen spirit

Arla Shephard | Dec 11, 2009 08:57 AM

Yesterday, the High Country News interns (Ariana Brocious, Cally Carswell and I) trekked to nearby Delta to speak to a journalism class at the local high school. After getting lost in the "big city" (Delta has about 6,500 residents to Paonia's 1,500) we were greeted by five bright and eager young journalists. Well, sort of.

The students (whose final projects entailed writing articles about High Country News and journalism) displayed varying degrees of interest, from mildly curious to distinctly bored. We were interviewed press-conference style about our backgrounds, interests and how we came to be at High Country News:

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Climate change by any other name ...

Jodi Peterson | Dec 10, 2009 08:00 AM

In towns from Pocatello, Idaho, to Las Cruces, N.M.,  local governments are responding to the West's changing climate. They're cutting energy consumption, insulating homes, reducing water usage, and more -- but often without ever mentioning "global warming" or "climate change", loaded terms that can trigger heated debates.

Instead, they're promoting their policies under the auspices of "sustainability" or "economic efficiency." In some cases officials are deliberately trying to avoid provoking negative reactions from residents, and in other cases they're simply addressing what they see as more pressing problems (sprawl, transportation). Either way, their actions help to mitigate climate change.

A new report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy-Sonoran Institute describes this trend:

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Desert Rock on hold

Ariana Brocious | Dec 09, 2009 07:04 AM

The proposed Desert Rock power plant on the Navajo Nation near Farmington, N.M., will need to find a new source of cash after the U.S. Department of Energy denied a $450 million stimulus funding bid for carbon-capture controls last week. The funding would have covered about 43 percent of the cost of those controls.

The joint project between the Navajo Nation and Sithe Global has been long contested: supported by Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley because of the job and revenue flow it will bring, opposed by groups like Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment due to air pollution and other environmental concerns in a region already rife with coal emissions. Desert Rock would be the third coal-powered plant in the Four Corners area.

In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pulled the air quality permit it granted the project last summer, pushing developers to pursue the carbon capture model, a more rigorous, but much more expensive, method to control air pollution. At the time, the New Mexico Independent reported that Shirley was disgruntled by the EPA’s decision, calling it “further proof that the U.S. government isn’t ‘honest and truthful in its dealings with Native America.’ ”

A firm supporter of Desert Rock, Shirley has been making waves lately in the debate about the environment versus jobs (see my November blog). Yet Navajo Nation attorney Doug MacCourt said the funding bid was denied because of paperwork problems, and shouldn’t be taken as an indication of the DOE’s opposition to the project, reported the Farmington Daily Times.

Opponents hope funding constraints will cause developers to rethink the Desert Rock project, perhaps even kill it completely. But project officials are continuing to look at their options, reported the Farmington Daily Times, considering an appeal to the DOE since it seems unlikely better alternatives lie in the offing. If completed, the 1,500 megawatt plant would provide 17 percent of the new energy that will be required in the region by 2015, states the Desert Rock Energy Project Web site.


For more information, read Laura Paskus’s essay: “It’s Time to Abandon Desert Rock.”

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A golden ruling

Arla Shephard | Dec 09, 2009 06:01 AM

It’s not often that the world’s largest gold mining company doesn’t get what it wants, especially in the nation’s largest gold-producing state.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that Barrick Gold’s proposal to dig a 2,000-foot deep open pit at the Cortez Hill mine on Mount Tenabo lacks sufficient environmental review. The mountain, which is considered sacred among many of the area’s tribes (much like New Mexico’s Mount Taylor, featured in HCN’s recent cover story by Laura Paskus), is about 250 miles east of Reno, Nev.

The Associated Press reports:

In reversing an earlier ruling, the judges in San Francisco said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately analyze the mine's potential to pollute the air with mercury emissions and dry up scarce water resources in Nevada's high desert…

The appellate judges concluded BLM's review was inadequate under the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a thorough examination of large-scale projects on federal land. They said the agency didn't fully consider the air quality impacts resulting from transporting ore to an off-site processing facility 70 miles away.

The judges also said the review didn't do enough to examine the likelihood that pumping water out of the pit would cause the groundwater level to drop and potentially dry up more than a dozen streams and springs.

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The fight over cap and trade

Marty Durlin | Dec 09, 2009 03:55 AM

The carbon emissions trading scheme known as cap-and-trade is on the global table as the United Nations Climate Change conference gets underway this week in Copenhagen.  Cap-and-trade is also a feature of the Waxman-Markey bill currently being reshaped by the U.S. Senate after passage in the House in June. Hailed by supporters as "an important first step" and "better than nothing" in the fight against global warming, cap-and-trade has become a bit of a hot potato in the green community.

Environmental justice groups and many climate activists hate the concept, not only because it allows coal-fired plants to continue to operate, but because it is an invitation to fraud -- many believe cap-and-trade will allow companies to rig the system (two of the biggest players in carbon trading are the scandal-ridden Enron and Goldman-Sachs), while more CO2 is pumped into the atmosphere.

On the other side of the argument are most of the Democratic Party and some big conservation groups, including the Natural Resource Defense Council, which see cap-and-trade as a practical tool in dealing with the climate crisis. Set the emissions cap, they argue, and allow trades to achieve it while creating green jobs.

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A new line of defense

Ed Quillen | Dec 05, 2009 09:25 AM

    The attorneys for Tim DeChristopher, the University of Utah student who made bogus bids at a BLM drilling-rights auction last year, have come up with a new line of defense: selective prosecution.
 
    DeChristopher is charged with such federal felonies as interfering with a government auction and making a false representation. If convicted, he could get up to 10 years in prison.
 
    DeChristopher had earlier proposed a "necessity defense" based on preventing global warming by stopping some drilling, but that was rejected by federal judge Dee Benson.
 
    What's selective prosecution? Suppose you're among a crowd of people jaywalking. The cop arrests only you. You might have a "selective prosecution" defense, especially if you can show you were singled out.
 
    According to paperwork filed by the federal prosecutors in a recent pre-trial conference (the trial is currently scheduled for March 15-17), there have been at least 25 cases where someone bid at a BLM mineral-rights auction, and then failed to pay. And not one of them was ever charged with submitting a fraudulent bid.
 
    So why single out DeChristopher? The prosecution might argue that the others at least intended to pay, whereas DeChristopher had no intention of coming up with the $1.7 million to cover his successful bids..
 
    DeChristopher might then point out that, after the action,  he began to raise money on the Internet, thus showing intention to pay, although the government refused to accept any of that money.
 
    Further, another federal judge later found that many of the parcels offered for auction, which were near national parks and monuments, could not be legally leased under federal law. So if the auction contained bogus parcels in the first place, how could  DeChristopher be guilty of interfering with a legitimate government process?
 
    This makes a lot more sense than the "necessity defense," and one might hope that, at the very least, it will inspire the BLM to prosecute all successful bidders who can't come up with the cash at closing time. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and what's law for a college student should be law for an exploration company.
 

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Doggone it

Jodi Peterson | Dec 02, 2009 09:15 AM

The black-tailed prairie dog won't be protected under the Endangered Species Act, the feds announced today. Despite the fact that the 'dogs now occupy about 3 percent of their original habitat, and despite plague, poisoning and "varmint hunts", the federal Fish and Wildlife Service says populations are increasing.

That's good news for farmers, ranchers, and developers, given that black-tailed prairie dogs inhabit 2.4 million acres across the West and federal protection would limit activities on that land. It's also doubtless gratifying to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who, in his former position as Colorado's Attorney General, "threatened legal action if the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the black-tailed prairie dog as threatened".

But it's bad news for prairie dogs and their supporters. Reports the Casper Star-Tribune:

Lauren McCain, prairie protection director for WildEarth Guardians, said she was "very, very disappointed and discouraged" by Wednesday's ruling.

The black-tailed prairie dog, she said, is a "keystone species" that helps create habitat for a variety of other species -- including the black-footed ferret, one of the rarest animals in North America. "The whole life of the prairie depends on the health of prairie dog colonies," she said.

For more perspective, see our 2000 story, when listing the dog was found to be "warranted but precluded": Dog doesn't get its day and our 1999 feature Standing up for the underdog.

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Nuclear Nevada

Cally Carswell | Nov 24, 2009 08:24 AM

"Some of you have been inconvenienced by our test operations," the Atomic Energy Commission wrote to residents living near the Nevada Test Site, in Nye County, in 1955. "At times some of you have been exposed to potential risk from flash, blast, or fall-out. You have accepted the inconvenience or the risk without fuss, without alarm, and without panic."

Inconvenience? That's hardly how Nevadans would describe their nuclear legacy today, nor are they "without alarm" about its consequences. When Yucca Mountain was shelved earlier this year, many breathed a sigh of relief that Nye County wouldn't become a nuclear dumping ground—at least for now. But as the LA Times reports, the county is unlikely to shake its nuclear past anytime soon:

Over 41 years, the federal government detonated 921 nuclear warheads underground at the Nevada Test Site, 75 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Each explosion deposited a toxic load of radioactivity into the ground and in some cases directly into aquifers.

...

In a study for Nye County, where the nuclear test site lies, [Nevada hydrogeologist Thomas] Buqo estimated that the underground tests polluted 1.6 trillion gallons of water. That is as much water as Nevada is allowed to withdraw from the Colorado River in 16 years—enough to fill a lake 300 miles long, a mile wide and 25 feet deep.

At today's prices, that water would be worth as much as $48 billion if it had not been fouled, Buqo said.

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