A federal judge has issued a harsh rebuke to the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation, ordering the agency to conduct more studies on the potential environmental impact of a project to divert water from the Missouri River to a large swath of North Dakota.
The Northwest Area Water Supply Project would carry water from Lake Sakakawea, a Missouri River reservoir in central North Dakota, to the city of Minot, N.D., where it would be distributed to 10 counties. Most of the planned 45-mile pipeline has already been finished.
In her opinion in Manitoba v. Salazar, Judge Rosemary Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of the Canadian province, which claimed in a 2002 lawsuit that the agency failed to take the necessary "hard look" at the project's environmental impact as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
"The Court is acutely aware that Reclamation and North Dakota have built miles of pipeline and that the citizens of the area want the Project completed. These facts do not excuse Reclamation's failure to follow the law," Collyer wrote in the opinion, issued Friday. "This case demonstrates the adage that it is better to do something right the first time. Reclamation has wasted years by cutting corners and looking for shortcuts."
Missouri, which filed suit separately in the case, has expressed concerns about effects on water levels downstream. The pipeline would remove about 3.5 billion gallons of water per year from the river.
Collyer wrote that an existing injunction will be left in place as Reclamation studies the effects of water withdrawal on Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River. The bureau will also be required to study the consequences of potential species transfer into the Hudson Bay Basin, which includes central Canada and much of the northern Great Plains of the United States.
Environmentalists have expressed concerns about the spread of invasive species such as waterborne microbes. Several advocacy groups, including the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and the National Wildlife Federation, submitted a friend-of-the-court brief saying the court should ensure that the project's environmental impact statement complies with NEPA.
"Piping water across the continental divide will not solve the water crisis allegedly in existence in North Dakota. The transbasin diversion will simply create a new environmental crisis," the brief said.
In response to Manitoba's lawsuit, Reclamation has claimed it was not required to conduct a study of the consequences of species transfer, arguing that such a transfer was unlikely and that federal law did not require the agency to examine potential environmental impacts in other countries. The bureau also argued that a previous court order and recommendation from U.S. EPA had deemed the project's environmental safeguards adequate.
Collyer had ordered Reclamation in 2005 to revisit its environmental finding. The bureau announced last year that it had revised the pipeline project, incorporating a plan to disinfect the water within the Missouri River Basin before transferring it into the Hudson Bay Basin.
"This decision marks another step in our efforts to bring reliable, quality water to northwest North Dakota," said Michael Ryan, Reclamation's Great Plains regional director, in a statement announcing the new pipeline plans. A bureau spokesman did not return calls for comment by deadline.
The changes were not enough for Collyer, who ruled that while the agency may have taken steps to reduce the likely environmental impact of the project, it had not studied the potential consequences.
"Reclamation did nothing in response to the court's order or [EPA's] recommendation," Collyer wrote. "Because Reclamation has not studied the potential consequences from pipeline leakage or breach -- which are to be anticipated -- it cannot evaluate whether its water treatment proposals sufficiently address and mitigate for such potential consequences as NEPA demands."
Click here to read the judge's opinion.