News Roundup: Arroyos on trial; Superstition Vistas; Lake Powell bridge
And hydrocarbon highways, judge shoots down Colorado O&G leases, solar on the water
I walk down the bed of an arroyo at the bottom of a small canyon. It is August, late afternoon, and up there, on the rim, the temperature is at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Down here it is slightly cooler because of the shade, but also, I believe, because of the water. The stream bed on which I walk is dry, gravelly, but if I were to dig down a foot, maybe three or four, I’d encounter damp earth, the visceral memory of the last time it rained here, when water poured out of the sky, poured in sheets and cascades off the sandstone, transformed every rivulet and gully into roiling brooks. The pliable willows lining the banks and a small and scraggly cottonwood at a sharp turn in the arroyo’s path tell me this is true.
Yet a movement afoot for the last 50 years would deem this arroyo—and the one it runs into and three more that join up before together they empty into the San Juan River—insignificant and unworthy of federal protection. Later this year the U.S. Supreme Court will take up Sackett v. The United States, in which the aforementioned movement is urging the Court to re-define “waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) in a way that would remove some 80 percent of the Southwest’s waterways from federal jurisdiction. (for a detailed blow-by-blow timeline of the debate over the WOTUS definition, please see my recent piece for High Country News, “The Supreme Court is set to weigh in on the Clean Water Act’s reach.”).
For years, the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers—the agencies charged with enforcing the CWA—considered WOTUS to include everything from arroyos to prairie potholes to sloughs to mudflats, so long as the destruction or degradation thereof might ultimately affect traditionally navigable waters or interstate commerce (which could include recreation, sightseeing, or wildlife watching). It was a broad definition that gave the agencies latitude to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters,” as the Clean Water Act mandated.