Two years after federal officials signed off on a major pipeline project that will ensure a sustainable water supply for two Native American tribes and the city of Gallup, N.M., the White House has put the project on the fast track.
The Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, the centerpiece of a water settlement between the Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla-Apache tribe and the federal government, is among 14 federally funded construction projects that will move ahead more quickly under a presidential directive that allows for expedited environmental reviews.
The goal is to accelerate construction of major infrastructure projects and stimulate job creation by relaxing some planning and review requirements, the White House said on Tuesday. The release of the list of expedited projects follows a White House directive in August that agencies expedite environmental reviews and permitting decisions for projects that could be completed in 18 months.In addition to the Navajo-Gallup water project, which is under the purview of the Interior Department, some other projects to receive fast-tracked permitting include two wind power projects in national forests in California and Vermont; 80 oil and gas development permit applications in the Dakota Prairie and Little Missouri national grasslands; a new highway project linking Provo, Utah's airport to Interstate 15; the expansion of the Los Angeles Metro's Green Line light rail system toward Los Angeles International Airport; and a suite of habitat restoration projects in California and Washington.
"While many of these review processes are not under the control of the federal government -- state, local, and tribal governments are partners in the effort, as well -- the Obama administration is committed to reforming the federal permitting and environmental review process to ensure that it runs as efficiently as possible while continuing to protect the health and safety of all Americans, and to preserve opportunities for public participation in federal decision-making," the White House said in a statement.
A new water supply
The Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, which involves building about 280 miles of pipeline, two water treatments plants, 24 pumping stations and various storage facilities, will for the first time provide the two tribes and the city of Gallup, all of which lie in a water-strapped area of western New Mexico, with a sustainable water supply.
Once built, the pipeline will be able to carry enough water to serve about 203,000 people in 43 Navajo communities, known as "chapters," as well as 1,300 people in the Jicarilla Apache Nation, and approximately 47,000 people in Gallup.
The project, currently slated for completion by 2024, is part of a water rights settlement that resolves a 25-year dispute over how much water the Navajo Nation should receive from the San Juan River. The accelerated review process should put it ahead of schedule, said Barry Wirth, a Bureau of Reclamation spokesman.
An environmental impact statement (EIS) for the $870 million pipeline project has already been completed, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has found that the project will not jeopardize threatened or endangered species, although the agency did recommend various measures to reduce impacts on the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, southwestern willow flycatcher and Mesa Verde cactus. Those measures have been incorporated into the plan for the project.
Reclamation, which is overseeing construction of the water project, will work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management and the other government and private entities to better coordinate efforts and identify areas where the review process can be streamlined, Wirth said.
But project managers still must follow the law and will not cut corners, he emphasized.
"It's not a case of shortcutting; it's how we can move these things along in a quicker fashion and not have them bog down in a bureaucratic inbox sort of thing," he said.
Wirth noted that hundreds of people on the Navajo Nation, which extends across 27,425 square miles of New Mexico and Arizona, currently lack running water, and more than 40 percent of Navajo households have to haul water to meet their daily needs.
Members of the Jicarilla Apache community are unable to live and work outside the small reservation town of Dulce because water supplies do not exist in outlying areas, according to the 2009 planning report for the project.
"I think all of our employees welcome this and are ready to take it on," Wirth said. "It's going to be stressful, but I think our people are excited to get this along, because as soon as we can get it constructed, the sooner the benefits flow to those communities."
Lance Allgood, executive director of Gallup Joint Utilities, which will handle the city's share of the water, said the 7,500 acre-feet of water Gallup will receive annually is key to the city's future, and the sooner the water begins flowing, the better.
"The city of Gallup is mining groundwater, and has no long-term renewable resource for water, so without the Navajo-Gallup pipeline, our future would be uncertain," he said. "And given it has been authorized for construction, anything that can expedite the buildout of this, certainly the city of Gallup is grateful for."