Water Pipeline Permitting is no Easy Task

Aaron Million had a stuttered process with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Will he get the rapid review that he has predicted at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)?

Pipeline Teaser

Not likely, says Matt Rice, director of Colorado conservation for American Rivers, a non-governmental organization.

“(Million) has been suggesting that he could get this project done in a significantly shorter amount of time (through FERC). My first reaction is this: He’s totally forgetting about the federal hydropower licensing requirements under the Federal Power Act. The process can be incredibly complex, especially for a project of this size, geographic scope and complexity.”

Based on his experience working on hydropower projects seeking permits in South Carolina and Alabama, Rice expects a process that lasts at least a decade. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this project took at least 10 years…and more like 12 to 15 years,” he says. “Augusta, Ga., just got a license for a small project, and that process took more than 30 years.”

And before a permit is awarded by FERC, it must also get review under the applicable environmental laws – possibly including the Clean Water Act, which is what had triggered the original review by the Army Corps.

Million needed a section 404 dredge-and-fill permit under the provisions of that law because of proposed use of fill at Flaming Gorge Reservoir for his proposed take-out structure and possibly at other wetlands locations along the pipeline route.

A spokeswoman for the Army Corps describes a process that was delayed because of Million’s foot-dragging. “It had to do with the many delays and the applicant continuing to ask for more extensions and more time,” says regulatory specialist Rena Brand. “Toward the end of July, his group explained that they were thinking about moving to energy production.” And that, she said, meant a new purpose and need.

Precise identification of purpose and need are needed for all reviews under the Clean Water Act as well as those under the National Environmental Policy Act. After being informed of the requirement in July 2009, Million delivered a list of 18 water users in January 2010, half of them agriculture groups and half municipalities. The Corps set out to verify the water needs claimed by the entities, including uses and conservation plans, according to Brand.

Then, in May 2010 Million requested a pause in the Corps’ environmental impact statement review. He did not say why, according to Brand. Later, he requested another extension. That’s when the Army Corps began evaluating whether to continue its review of the application. On July 22, the agency announced it was ending the process.

In going to FERC, Million joins a similar proposal to construct a 100-mile pipeline to water from Lake Powell to St. George, Utah. “That concerns American Rivers,” say Rice. “We are seeing these water projects sort of disguised as power projects.” But if the intent is to dodge full-blown environmental review, it won’t work, says Rice. He says that watchdog groups such as American Rivers will closely watch the reviews to ensure compliance with both the spirit and letter of the laws.

(Banner photo by Stig Morten Waage)

— Allen Best reports on water, energy, and other issues in Colorado, the Great Plains, and the Intermountain West. A fourth-generation Coloradan, he has worked as a journalist since the 1970s. Since...

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