OPINION — Is public involvement important? Should the public have a reasonable opportunity to comment on government proposals that may affect them before decisions occur? Is it appropriate for government to try to sneak important matters past the public over the busy holiday season, or to withhold relevant information from public review?
I know that our nation’s politics have sadly become increasingly polarized, and our widening divisions now threaten the very foundation of our democratic republic. But I hope that most of us, as patriotic Americans, can agree on the fundamental importance of public involvement. “We the people” are supposed to be in charge, with a rational government of constitutional checks and balances that should make decisions in the public interest.
Back on July 19, I wrote about significant issues affecting Washington County, and the importance of public involvement during the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) processes relating to those issues.
It is often difficult to follow these NEPA processes because of ever-changing timetables and frequent surprises from agencies. For example, on the proposed Northern Corridor Highway NEPA, the public scoping process was originally supposed to begin in August, and then no later than mid-November.
On the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline, Utah decided to withdraw the hydropower component, and thereby removed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as the NEPA lead agency. The NEPA then was transferred to the Interior Department, where it was announced that the Bureau of Reclamation would be the new NEPA lead agency.
Both the Northern Corridor and Lake Powell Pipeline issues have been very controversial for many years. Among other things, there are concerns that the Northern Corridor would renege on the county’s past commitment to permanently protect the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, harm the highest density population of threatened Mojave desert tortoises, and establish a dangerous national precedent by weakening protection for BLM’s Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.
On the Lake Powell Pipeline, there are concerns not only about the potential environmental impacts but also about the huge financial risks of committing about three billion public dollars (including interest payments on debt) given the uncertainty of future Colorado River flows due to likely prolonged droughts from climate change and the associated future conflicts over those much reduced future supplies. What happens if we build the pipeline, incur the massive debt, and then the water does not come and we cannot pay off the debt?
On both issues, alternatives are being put forward as feasible ways to avoid building the Northern Corridor or the Lake Powell Pipeline. On the Northern Corridor, Conserve Southwest Utah has already identified some preliminary alternatives that may fulfill transportation needs without jeopardizing the RCDR, NCA and tortoises. On the Lake Powell Pipeline, Conserve Southwest Utah, Western Resource Advocates, Utah Rivers Council and others, have identified what they believe to be much more reliable and affordable alternatives. For example, implementing a combination of already proven successful water conservation, efficiency and reclamation methods could obviate or at least greatly postpone the need for the LPP. In nearby Las Vegas, there has been great success in reducing per capita water use through incentives and advertising.
NEPA passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by former President Nixon in 1970. It has the commendable purposes of directing federal agencies to take a “hard look” at proposed actions, fairly evaluate alternatives, analyze the environmental consequences of the proposed action and alternatives, and provide for meaningful public involvement. It is often said that the “heart” of NEPA is the alternatives analysis. “Scoping” at the beginning of the NEPA process is the best time for the public to raise alternatives to proposed actions. The agencies then decide whether to accept and carry forward those alternatives into the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for detailed analysis and comparison of impacts with the proposed action. If an agency decides not to carry forward an alternative, it must provide a reasonable explanation for that decision. An agency is not supposed to be arbitrary or capricious in making those decisions, nor to demonstrate any bias favoring either supporters or opponents.
With this NEPA background in mind, what happened on Dec. 5 and 6 was a shocking surprise, and frankly very disappointing. On Dec. 5, the Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service started the official NEPA public scoping comment period on the proposed Northern Corridor and related actions. The very next day, on Dec. 6, BOR started the official NEPA public scoping comment period on the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline. So, arguably the two most significant NEPA processes affecting Washington County in a decade or more are initiated almost simultaneously, with short overlapping comment periods, and during the busy holiday season between Thanksgiving and the New Year.
BLM, FWS and BOR are “sister agencies” within the Interior Department. Ideally, they would have coordinated on these high-profile NEPA processes so that the scoping would be consecutive rather than concurrent, and to avoid the holiday season. If they truly wanted to encourage meaningful public involvement during NEPA scoping, that is what they should have done. Unfortunately, they instead appear to be discouraging the required public involvement. And BLM and FWS have not provided some important documents that should be available for review, especially the draft Habitat Conservation Plan and Incidental Take Permit which is part of the Northern Corridor NEPA.
Of course, when you are given “lemons”, sometimes it is simply best to make “lemonade.” Despite the holidays, if you have concerns about either or both of these issues, please participate in scoping and submit your comments. Whether you care about tortoises and the viewshed above Saint George, or how your water bills and property taxes may skyrocket to pay off the Lake Powell Pipeline debt, your voice is needed. This is a pivotal time to speak to your government about how you want your money spent and your federal lands managed. You should not complain about problems with dysfunctional or even corrupt government if you remain silent. Regardless of our differing opinions, I believe that all patriotic Americans have a duty to be actively involved in solving those problems. Indeed, if you proudly salute the flag, then you should be willing to defend and advocate for what it stands for.
Submitted by RICHARD SPOTTS, St. George.
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