River News for the Week of January 5, 2001
INTERIOR SECRETARY: Amidst praise from Republicans and recreationists, but "cautious disdain" from environmentalists, President-elect Bush appointed Gale A. Norton as secretary of Interior. Norton had worked as Colorado's attorney general from 1991 to 1999 and also worked with former Interior Secretary James Watt, considered by some as the worst Secretary of the Interior ever. Watt was a supporter of resource development such as oil and gas drilling, mining and timber harvesting, reports Greenwire (1/2). Bush defines Norton as "a leader who will respect the land and honor our national commitment to conservation," while Norton herself has promised "to preserve our wonderful national treasures, [and] to restore endangered species." However, since working for James Watt, Gale Norton has taken numerous positions that most conservationists disagree with, says American Rivers (12/29). She worked to pass ill-considered "takings" legislation that would have required taxpayers to pay people not to wipe out critical wildlife habitat on their land. She has argued for giving far more leeway to corporations and state and local governments in deciding whether or not to follow our nation's basic environmental laws. Ben Beach of The Wilderness Society also opposes the nomination for Energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, but said "We oppose it [Abraham's nomination], but we're just being realistic about our manpower. We're so involved in fighting the Norton nomination that there's just a limit to what we can do on the Energy Department front." (Greenwire 1/5)
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HYDROPOWER: River conservation groups across the country are on full alert as a little-known federal agency begins public hearings this Monday, Jan. 8, to consider changing the way the government regulates private hydropower dams on our nation's rivers. At the direction of Senator Frank Murkowski (R-AK) and at the behest of the electric utility industry, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) will hold a series of public meetings across the country -- starting Monday in Washington, DC -- "to determine ways to reduce the cost and time of obtaining a (hydropower dam) license."
American Rivers, American Whitewater, American Whitewater, Trout Unlimited and more than 70 grassroots groups from across the country this week voiced concern that these hearings are just the latest in a long line of efforts by powerful utilities and their lobbyists to escape the obligations that come with the use of public rivers. Following on the heels of last year's legislative efforts by Senator Larry Craig (R-ID), the conservation community is pessimistic about the intent of these hearings, which appears to be an extension of industry efforts to roll back long-term environmental protections under the cover of a short-term energy problem. Matt Sicchio, Coordinator of the Hydropower Reform Coalition - representing more than 70 conservation and recreation groups nationwide-stressed that these hearings are about the future of our rivers, not about energy and government red-tape. "Hydropower licenses allow utilities to monopolize a river for a half a century with little oversight and no motivation to make further environmental improvements. We must get it right the first time. No matter what FERC proposes to Congress by way of changes, it must not mortgage the health of our rivers in the process."
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RECREATION: The environmental group Bluewater Network and the National Park Service have reached an agreement to ban the use of personal watercraft in national park areas unless use of the craft is determined environmentally safe through a public process, reports Greenwire (1/3). The personal watercraft industry opposes the agreement and will be attempting to become a party to the settlement under consideration in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. Under the agreement, personal watercraft such as jet skis and waverunners would be banned in national parks and recreation sites in two years "unless they undergo an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act." If the settlement is approved by a judge, 21 parks with the most personal watercraft use will have to undergo a NEPA analysis to have PWC use continue.
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SOUTH YUBA RIVER: On January 1st, 2001, the South Yuba River became California's first river to be protected under the state's Wild and Scenic River Act since the 1980's. The South Yuba River Citizens League (SYRCL) was created by local residents seven years ago when a hydropower company was issued licenses by the federal government to construct a dam on the river. After seven years in court, the SYRCL prevailed against the company. Other dams were later proposed, with the most recent in 1999. But also in 1999, newly elected Supervisors in Nevada County announced their support for protection of the South Yuba, and California State Senator Byron Sher agreed to author legislation protecting the river under the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Act prevents the state of California from proposing or issuing licenses for dams on protected rivers. (SYRCL press release 12/19).
In a related story, leaders of the Calfed Bay Delta restoration effort this week approved $6.7 million to study ways to get chinook salmon and steelhead trout past 261-foot Englebright Dam. As reports the Union (1/5), funding for the six, separate feasibility studies will come from Proposition 204, the Safe, Clean, Reliable Water Supply Act, a ballot measure that California voters approved in 1996. The studies will examine upstream and downstream habitat, flood-risk management, water and hydropower effects, water quality issues, sediment studies and economic issues.
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TAKU RIVER: In an attempt to pressure Canada to stop the controversial mining project on the Taku River in British Columbia, a coalition of United States and Canadian conservation groups formally asked the U.S. government this week to use a federal statute, which includes the threat of trade sanctions. The groups fear that the Tulsequah Chief mine, and a 95-mile access road that would slash through untouched (and unprotected) wilderness, would harm essential habitat for woodland caribou and grizzly bears, species protected by the 1942 Convention on Nature and Wild Life Preservation in the Western Hemisphere. The Taku was identified as one of the country's most endangered rivers of 1998 due to this threat.
Cited by the petition is the 1971 Pelly Amendment to the Fishermen's Protective Act that requires the U.S. Department of the Interior to determine whether another country's actions "diminish the effectiveness" of international environmental protection agreements. If it does, then the Department must "certify" the offending nation, followed by the imposition of trade sanctions. In 1997, an environmental assessment of the mine and the road by the Province of British Columbia and the federal government of Canada found that the project would not have significant environmental impacts on the area. However, native groups opposed the finding and went to court to challenge this assessment. In June, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the assessment was invalid since it was done without relevant information about the potential effects of the mine.
The petition was filed by The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, American Rivers, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and several Canadian conservation groups belonging to the Transboundary Watershed Alliance (TWA) including Taku Wilderness Association, Yukon Conservation Society and Sierra Legal Defense Fund. (Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund release 1/5)
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HUDSON RIVER: A report by the National Academy of Sciences says that while PCBs in the Hudson River may pose a threat, more study is needed before dredging or other action is taken. However, the report neither supports nor rejects dredging the river of PCBs dumped there by the General Electric Co. for decades, says the AP (1/4). The National Academy of Sciences is a private, not-for-profit society that advises Congress on scientific matters. The NAS report states that PCBs remaining in sediments ``may pose long-term public health and ecosystem risks,'' but also says that "The committee does not believe that it is possible to state unequivocally whether dredging, capping ... or any particular option is applicable in general to PCB-contaminated sediment sites.'' According to the Academy, further work is required, including: Analyzing human health and ecological risks; Studying the impact of other contaminants in the sediment; Better determining how PCBs move in the sediments; Investigating cleanup technologies and innovations; and Studying continuing PCB releases in the river.
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TOUSSAINT RIVER: The US Army Corps of Engineers is planning once again to dredge the Toussaint River in Ohio. The river is blocked by a sandbar and littered with military ammunition fired from a testing range decades ago, says the AP (1/2). The river was already dredged a year ago, but winds and waves have swept piles of sediment and artillery shells back into the waterway. However, marina owners along the river say additional dredging won't make the river permanently accessible for boaters who use it to reach some of Lake Erie's most popular fishing spots. The agency plans to dredge again in April.
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NORTH FORK POPO AGIE RIVER: The parasite that causes whirling disease in trout has been found in the North Fork of the Popo Agie River on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Nearly 60 percent of brown trout tested at a fishing spot just outside of Lander had the parasite, says the AP (1/4). Whirling disease can kill young trout by attacking cartilage in the head and spine, and sometimes causing fish to develop whirling behavior. The North Fork of the Popo Agie River is considered one of the most productive trout streams in the Wind River Basin. Whirling disease has also been found in about two dozen streams in Montana.
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WILLAMETTE RIVER: Construction of a bridge over the Mount Scott Creek, a tributary of the Willamette, near Clackamas Town Center in Oregon has been stopped because of the potential harm to Willamette River steelhead, a federally protected species. This is the first such action in Oregon since the fish were named a threatened species nearly three years ago, says the Oregonian (1/3). One official fears the stoppage could push costs upward by $8 million. Clackamas county will now redo biological and engineering studies to determine whether the bridge's abutments constrict the creek, causing rushing water to churn up sediments that would choke protected runs of steelhead. As reports the Oregonian, "Conservationists hailed the action as evidence that the federal government is serious about local enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, but business groups say "the strict review of the bridge by the National Marine Fisheries Service confirms fears that the Endangered Species Act will bring costly delays to construction projects throughout the Willamette Valley."
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MARYLAND WATERS: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has moved to block dredging projects that would improve access for recreational boaters along four creeks along the Middle and Magothy rivers in Maryland. Saying that the work would set a dangerous precedent by destroying ecologically valuable underwater grasses, EPA officials are focusing on these four proposed projects because of their impact on areas where the grasses have begun reappearing in recent years. Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties are seeking permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the work, and have surveys showing that the dredging would remove about 3.5 acres of aquatic vegetation, says the Washington Post (1/4). Only 10 percent of the historic 600,000 acres of underwater grasses remains throughout the bay, and Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District have agreed to protect and restore 114,000 acres of aquatic grasses throughout the watershed. Though the EPA has said that the Corps should study whether deepening channels would prevent underwater grasses from growing back, Corps officials say they need to allow work to occur before they can determine the effects.
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WASHINGTON WATERS: The Washington State Department of Ecology is planning to impose tougher water quality standards "that will affect virtually everyone who uses the state's surface waters for recreation, agriculture or commerce," says the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (1/4). Targeted at limiting the amount of pollution that's allowed in the rivers, lakes, and marine waters of the state, the new standards were under development for eight years and had input from industry, fruit packers, dairy farmers, dry land farmers, municipalities, Indian tribes, and federal agencies, among others. If approved by the EPA, the new standards will then be submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service for approval. Details about the standards and locations of the workshops to explain them can be found at: www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wq/swqa/index.html
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