A lawyer, writing on behalf of several environmental groups, is urging the Bureau of Land Management to reconsider its approval for a hydroelectric project in the rugged Deep Creek Mountains.
The Birch Creek and Trout Creek hydroprojects in the mountain range were authorized on the basis of an environmental assessment completed in 1983. The range towers above the western desert in Juab and Tooele counties.Conditions have changed since 1983, the environmentalists contend.Lawyer Jeffrey W. Appel is asking the BLM to update its studies. Appel, who works with the Haley & Stolebarger law firm in Salt Lake City, wrote on behalf of Trout Unlimited, Utah Wilderness Association, Utah Audubon Society, Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Bonneville Chapter of the American Fisheries Society.
Dick Traylor, branch chief for recreation, wilderness, cultural and environmental coordination in the BLM's state office, said the agency is looking into the environmentalists' requests concerning the Birch Creek and Trout Creek hydroprojects. The state office received a report from its Richfield District on the projects' status.
"It involves legal questions and everything else, since it already is an issued right-of-way," he said. Traylor said the BLM will meet with the parties to the dispute around late March.
But as far as Barry Hutchings is concerned, there's no need for additional studies. Hutchings, a Bountiful man who is part of BMB Enterprises, the projects' sponsor, said, "I know the conditions have changed; in fact, they've gotten worse."
They got worse because flooding in 1983 damaged the project area, he said.
Asked if additional studies should be done, as the environmentalists claim, he responded gruffly.
"That's a kind of a stupid question," because the project has already received its license, Hutchings commented. He added that construction must begin by late July or it will lose its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license.
The project is even more environmentally damaging than the studies indicated in 1983, said Gary Macfarlane, conservation director of the Utah Wilderness Association. He believes the project would take about 7,000 feet of water from Birch Creek and around 2,000 feet from Trout Creek. Both are perennial streams in the Deep Creeks at their lower levels.
"The Deep Creek Mountains literally are an island ecosystem," Macfarlane said. "Because of that, they're home to flora and fauna that are very limited in distribution or found nowhere."
In a desert setting, "any dewatering of streams in the area would have disastrous consequences for the Bonneville cutthroat trout, other wildlife and plant species associated with the riparian system."
Macfarlane contended that the approval process for the project "has been filled with continual behind-the-scenes maneuvering, hidden from public scrutiny."
The project has been on the books since 1983, but not built. Macfarlane thinks the project may be built soon, however.
It is suddenly on the front burner again, eight years after the assessment, because of the FERC construction deadline.
"We believe the project would cause severe environmental damage and the loss of U.S. government property and resources," Appel wrote to BLM state director James Parker on Feb. 1.
The 1983 environmental assessment was deficient because it did not review potential impacts to Deep Creek Wilderness Study Area, he wrote. A review shows that the structures for the project may extend into the wilderness study area by as much as two-tenths of a mile, he added.
Manmade objects such as pipelines or water diversion structures generally are banned from wilderness areas.
"The 1983 EA (environmental assessment) stated there would be no impacts to the WSAs (wilderness study areas); that is a fallacious conclusion given the current configuration of the project," Appel added.
The fact that eight years have passed since the assessment was completed means that conditions have changed, he wrote. "An eight-year-old NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) document, by its age alone, requires renewed NEPA reconsideration prior to final decision-making.
"The courts have held that NEPA documents must be updated on a timely basis for such long-term projects."
Since 1983, some new circumstances have arisen, he wrote:
- The BLM's House Range Resource Management Plan was written, and it requires that an inventory be made of the riparian resources in the Deep Creek Mountains Outstanding Natural Area. "No inventory has yet been completed."
- "The BLM has a riparian policy, adopted in 1987, that requires protection of riparian areas." The BLM manual requires protection of wetlands and riparian areas. "These questions must be addressed," Appel wrote.
- BLM policy is to protect sensitive wildlife species. Several species that were not listed as sensitive in 1983 have been listed since then.
- The situation of the Bonneville cutthroat trout was analyzed in the 1983 document. "However, since that time, the species has been proposed for listing as a threatened species." That happened in 1985.
Currently, a petition has been filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate the species as endangered. Under the Endangered Species Act, no federal action is to be permitted - such as authorizing a hydroproject on federal land - if it would damage the survival of the species.
"It is our position that the proposed project will detrimentally impact this species," Appel added.
- Several sensitive plant species are found in the area. "At a minimum, an inventory of these species in the project area must occur to ascertain their presence or absence prior to any project construction."
- It is possible that the spotted frog - proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act - may exist in the area. "The spotted frog is known to be found in the nearby Tule and Snake valleys. An inventory for this species must be accomplished."