Today, Administrative Law Judge Harvey Sweitzer granted Western Watersheds Project’s Petition to Stay the Final Decision to construct a new well on the Willis allotment of the Safford Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona. The order contains strongly worded recognition that the BLM failed to analyze and disclose the potential impacts to the riparian areas of this eastern Arizona allotment, and failed to explain the efficacy of the proposed mitigation measures.
The Willis Allotment Project has been the subject of intense interest by WWP ever since the BLM secretly signed a Final Decision authorizing the nearly $200,000 project before releasing scoping documents to the public in 2011. After securing a contract for the permittee with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the BLM then released its proposed plan to do same thing that had already effectively been promised to the permittee, including well-drilling, fence construction, and herbiciding 2,355 acres of native shrubs. When WWP learned about the illegal decision, no one at BLM could remember having signed it the previous month! The 2013 NEPA process proposes the same bad plan BLM covertly adopted two years ago, but simply pushes the required paperwork out to the public this time around.
WWP's 2013 Appeal addressed the tacked-on mitigation and monitoring measures that BLM added to the Decision in response to WWP’s latest protest. But simply adding a few bullet-points isn’t enough when it comes to protecting rare riparian habitats from groundwater withdrawal, and the Office of Hearings and Appeals ruled that BLM’s last-minute additions precluded any serious discussion about the effectiveness of those measures. Calling WWP’s concerns “serious and substantial,” the judge stayed the Decision for well construction that was to commence this year.
The stay affords at least a temporary reprieve for the plants and animals that call Hell Hole Canyon home, and the ruling makes it clear that BLM will have to develop more meaningful monitoring and mitigation measures to ensure that the surface flows aren’t affected by pumping more water for livestock. In the uphill battle of restoring watersheds for wildlife, that is a major success!