Narrows hits big stumbling block
By Suzanne Dean
BOUNTIFUL—The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has thrown a stumbling block in the path of the Narrows Project that could take as much as $2 million and as long as two years to surmount.
In response to an application for a 404 permit (named for Section 404 of the Clean Water Act), the final permit needed to move ahead with design and construction of the water storage project, the Corp sent a letter to the Sanpete Water Conservancy District (SWCD) essentially saying, “Not yet.”
The letter, dated May 27, asserts three things:
First, the number of alternatives the SWCD has presented to building the Narrows is not sufficient.
Second, the purpose and need for the Narrows “remain unclear and problematic.”
Third, the SWCD needs to present a supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS). Such a document would be at least the third environmental study completed in the past 10 years. Collectively, the studies are more than 2,000 pages.
Leaders of the conservancy district practically went into shock when they received the letter, says Greg Soter, public affairs consultant for the Narrows. “The Corps is asking for a huge amount of additional information,” he says, “mostly answering questions that have been answered before.”
But Sanpete officials felt a bit better, Soter says, after meeting face to face on July 27 with Jason Gipson, chief of the Utah-Nevada branch for the Army Corps, and Julia McCarthy, a stream biologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Denver. The meeting was at the Corps of Engineers’ office in Bountiful.
The Army Corps response “isn’t a deal-killer for the Narrows,” says Edwin Sunderland of Chester, SWDC chairman.
The Sanpete representatives asked the federal officials point blank if their intent was to kill the project permanently. Gipson and McCarthy “insisted that such was absolutely not their intent, and that they did not believe that dams should no longer be built,” Soter, who was in the meeting, reported.
But the federal officials wouldn’t relent on their request for a costly supplemental EIS, says Steve Frischknecht, Sanpete County commission, who was also in the meeting.
“It didn’t matter what we said,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune. Frischknecht indicated he doubted a supplemental document would say anything that hasn’t been said. “My feeling is that no matter what we do, nothing changes as far as the science goes.”
“It’s easy to get angry over situations like this, and at first, we were furious,” Sunderland said. “But anger seldom solves problems, so we’ll just knuckle down and do what we’ve always done: Push ahead.
“Sanpete desperately needs the water storage the Narrows Project will provide. The drought we’re in right now is ample proof of that. Quitting isn’t an option. Providing the requested information may take another two or more years. But our conclusion is that we’ve got to jump through their hoops. So we’ll jump.”
Sanpete County has been trying for 80 years to get a dam and reservoir built to store supplemental water for use in the summer after stream flows decline.
The Narrows Project would serve the same function for the northern county that the Gunnison Reservoir serves for the central county and the Gunnison Valley.
A court ruled that 5,400 acre feet of water that falls on the eastern slope of the Wasatch Plateau but inside the Sanpete County line belongs to Sanpete.
For decades, county and conservancy district officials have said the Narrows Project is the only practical way to capture the water and deliver it to North Sanpete farmers and communities.
The present plan calls for a 120-foot dam and a 600-acre reservoir in the Manti-LaSal National Forest near the top of Fairview Canyon. The Forest Service has approved use of the land.
Multiple EIS’s were prepared before 2000. County leaders turned up the heat on the project again in the mid 2000s.
In 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), the lead federal agency on dams, prepared a final EIS, and then issued a “record of decision” approving the project. The decision gave Sanpete 15 years to design, finance and build the project.
That left one final approval, the 404 permit from the Army Corps. The SWDC contracted with a Logan consulting firm, which prepared a 520-page application. The document, Soter says, addressed every aspect of the Narrows Project in detail.
The galling thing about the Army Corps response to the county’s 404 application is that in 1998, the agency asked essentially the same questions it is asking now, Soter says. The SWDC submitted responses. In 2001, the Corps sent a letter telling the conservancy district that their submissions “appear to be adequate.”
A few years ago, while the BOR was preparing the final EIS, it invited the Army Corps to participate in its process. “But the Corps said nothing,” Soter says. “Not a peep, in spite of being invited multiple times by Reclamation to share their opinions.”
Between receipt of the May letter from the Corps and the meeting July 27, Sanpete leaders conferred with U.S. Rep. Mia Love., U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, and Gov. Gary Herbert.
But the elected officials told them political pressure wouldn’t work, Soter says. The officials “are universally frustrated that both the Corps of Engineers and the EPA are pretty much bulletproof and aloof from official oversight.”