Letter to the Editor: A Deeper Look At ‘Categorical Exclusion’ For Water Pipeline Project To Pajarito

Los Alamos

As described by the Forest Service*, the Sipapu Group seeks to construct a 6.8-mile pipeline to take water from a County tank of potable water, and from the Los Alamos reservoir if water is available, to a constructed pond on Pajarito Mountain.

The Forest Service states that because this proposal is of short-term nature, and because there is a “lack of extraordinary circumstances associated with it,” the Forest service plans to authorize the project under a “categorical exclusion,” meaning no assessment would be done to document the expected effects. In this “temporary” project, ten million gallons of water would be pumped during this fall season, and another ten million gallons would be pumped next spring, apparently in anticipation of snowmaking during the 2015-2016 winter.

I have four concerns with this project.

1) TEMPORARY? The project is advertised as “temporary,” and therefore not needing environmental review. However, the project is NOT temporary. The pipeline itself is regarded as “temporary” until the investors find a more permanent source of water. That permanent source will still be Los Alamos well water or surface water. As the Forest Service document says, if it is not “favorable” to move water out of the reservoir, all of the water will come from the County tank of potable water. The intent to divert well water or stream water to snowmaking is a long-term intent. This is exactly the kind of project that merits a NEPA review. Although the Forest Service says the project lacks “extraordinary circumstances,” I believe most people would regard pumping city water several miles uphill to generate snow as extraordinary.

The project exists because future years, like recent years, are expected to have low snowfall. The Forest Service indicates that some of the ski hill may be sold to make the project profitable. The project is thus a money-making scheme, in part to sell ski hill land that was originally released by the Forest Service for a recreational facility run by volunteers. This conversion of national forest to private development via a ski facility has happened elsewhere, including at Wolf Creek. This process merits review. Instead, it is a subterfuge labeled as “temporary” and lacking “extraordinary circumstances.” Unfortunately, what IS ordinary is the capture of national forest land for private purposes.

2) IMPACTS? The diversion of water from either the Pajarito aquifer or from LA canyon for snowmaking would have impacts deserving question and review. In terms of current water use within the county, this year’s diversion would amount to less than one percent of current annual consumption. But what is the long-term plan? The Forest Service says the new operators are exploring how to fill “other ponds” on the hill. The Forest Service says the options for expanded water use are a new well (same source, different hole in the aquifer), capture of runoff higher on the hill (starve the ecology lower down), or a permanent water line from “other Los Alamos County water sources.” Does “other” mean reclaimed sewage effluent or San Juan-Chama water from the river?

Although the State Engineer often allows a large “return flow credit” for such projects, that credit simply creates a legal statement that the water was not used, although it disappeared. Almost none of the diverted water will return to its source. Is this the best use of the water? What water? This merits review.

3) WATER SALE? The sale of ten or twenty million gallons of potable water by the county has not had public review. Will this increase in successive years? The County has recently been in the process of adopting water rates that escalate according to the rate of consumption by the user. Ten million gallons consumed in one month (pumped during 24 days according to the Forest Service) would be a large user. Has this kind of consumption been included in the County’s rate structure and water plans?

CONCLUSION. This project isn’t necessarily bad. It might enable a few hundred people to ski on what would otherwise be bare slopes. But the project is neither temporary, nor free of impact. The project has an unclear future limit, apparently with the makings of a land-development scheme. The project has been declared free of review. This should proceed with full review, not approved as a subterfuge.

QUALIFICATIONS. For what it’s worth, I have a little familiarity with water. At one time I was a member of the Governor’s blue ribbon task force for water, and I have delivered an invited lecture at the annual water law conference. In New Mexico, water flows uphill to money.

*A somewhat obscure internet address for the Forest Service documents is found here.