A federal judge in Washington has ordered the Interior Department to re-examine its plans to divert water from the Missouri River into an arid section of North Dakota, granting requests from both the state of Missouri and the Canadian province of Manitoba, which united against the project.
In doing so, the judge handed a stern lecture to the department’s Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water resources in the Western United States.
“This case demonstrates the adage that it is better to do something right the first time,” wrote Judge Rosemary Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Friday. “[The Bureau of] Reclamation has wasted years by cutting corners and looking for shortcuts.”
The judge’s order is the latest hurdle for the Northwest Area Water Supply Project, a planned 45-mile pipeline that would bring water from Lake Sakakawea on the Missouri River to Minot, N.D. The project ran into controversy in 2002 when Manitoba sued to halt it.
The province claimed that the Bureau of Reclamation had failed to take a “hard look,” at the risks of enabling foreign species to move from the Missouri River Basin into the Hudson Bay Basin. Missouri later filed its own suit, arguing that the bureau had not properly considered the pipeline’s effect on water levels on Lake Sakakawea.
The bureau issued a new environmental impact statement and environmental assessment in 2008, which both Missouri and Manitoba said were still inadequate.
On Friday, Judge Collyer for the second time ordered the bureau to take a “hard look” at the issues the plaintiffs had raised. She said the department had still not considered the possible consequences of moving new life forms between the two river basins. She also said the department had failed to consider the impact of the pipeline on the lake’s water levels in the context of other ongoing water withdrawal projects.
“All it did was look at the project in isolation and conclude that the amount of water the Project alone is expected to withdraw is too small to impact the water level of Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River,” Collyer wrote. “That is a glance at the issue, not a ‘hard look.’”
Collyer also turned down a bureau argument that it had no obligation to consider the environmental impacts of its project within the territory of a foreign country. The judge cited a finding by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, which determined agencies must consider “foreseeable transboundary effects” of their proposed actions.
Even with litigation still ongoing, much of the pipeline project has already been completed, thanks to a order in 2005 which Collyer allowed portions of the construction to continue.
“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,” Collyer wrote on March 5. “These facts do not excuse Reclamation’s failure to follow the law.”