THE ESA PROCESS AND THE COST OF WATER
Dr. William M. Turner
At a time when the demand for water is accelerating in the West, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is assuming major significance as a limitation to growth and as a major contributor to the cost of water.
Major projects throughout the West are seeking to provide water to ever-expanding cities. Beginning in the early 1970's, for example, Arizona began planning the Central Arizona (CAP) project to deliver Arizona's share of Colorado River water to thirsty agricultural communities and to Tucson. The project was fought by those who objected to spending billions of dollars to support agriculture which only contributed five percent to the gross annual product of Arizona. Furthermore, the head of the Tucson water department, Frank Brooks, claimed that the quality of the effluent from the Pima County sewage treatment plant was better than the quality of the CAP water. In fact, when the water finally reached Tucson several years ago, it so badly corroded plumbing that its use had to be ended.
Apart from the above issues, many others developed involving the ESA. Although the ESA issues only add about one percent to overall project costs, the delays caused by the ESA process and the resolution of ESA problems takes place while population and water demand continues to increase.
During the construction of the 336-mile CAP canal, 40 ESA concerns arose. Some were quickly resolved through informal consultations with other agencies. Some were not resolved quickly.
In 1990, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) began construction of a canal between the CAP aqueduct system and the Pima lateral which conveys water to the San Carlos Irrigation Project. The project would mix Colorado River water with Gila River water. Not only are the waters legally distinct, but the possibility of introducing Colorado fish into the Gila River, thereby threatening the spikedace and the loach minnow upstream of Aravaipa Creek had to be addressed. Thus began informal consultations between the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). This process became more formal and reasonable and prudent alternatives (RPAs) were issued by the USFWS. The Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) objected to the RPAs. CAWCD submitted its own suggestions and asked the USBR and the USFWS to reopen negotiations. USBR and USFWS declined and CAWCD threatened a court battle. Other parties jumped into the fray. At present, the issue has not been resolved and it has jumped to the political arena. The U.S. Senate has zeroed funding to implement the RPAs in the USBR FY97 budget.
Meanwhile, more than six years has elapsed since this ESA problem developed. Economic conditions have changed. No doubt the water has become more valuable during the past six years and alternative demands for the water have developed. The CAP is not the only project to have ESA problems. Between October 1, 1983 and September 11, 1996, the Arizona office for ESA compliance handled 4,591 cases. Of these, 208 went to the formal stage of consultation. All of these involve time to resolve the more controversial ones may never be resolved and can kill a project.
The regulatory process caused by the ESA significantly influences the value of water in the West. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the ESA and the power of the federal government to protect threatened and endangered species, it is a present reality which can make it impossible to implement water delivery or hydroelectric power generation. Or, at the very least may make the cost of such projects significantly more expensive.
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