Finding alternatives to transbasin water diversions
Transbasin water diversions should be the option of last resort to meet water supply needs. Taking water from one watershed and moving it hundreds of miles to another watershed causes numerous environmental, economic, and social problems. Diversions rob the source watershed of its freshwater, disrupting river flows, lake levels, and groundwater tables. The receiving watershed may also be impacted by the diverted water introducing new aquatic invasive species into the ecosystem. Transbasin water diversions rarely make economic sense, as water conservation and other water law reforms are far more cost-effective solutions to water shortages. These controversial projects often divide communities and lead to interstate and international conflicts instead of cooperation.
Challenging EPA Water Transfers Rule
Working on behalf of the Michigan Council of Trout Unlimited, the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center is challenging the U.S. EPA’s new rule exempting water transfers from Clean Water Act regulation. The rule violates the plain language of the Clean Water Act and would open the door to more invasive species and water pollution. For these reasons, the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center has filed a petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals seeking an order vacating the new EPA rule.
The EPA rule, formally titled “National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Water Transfer Rule,” exempts water transfers from one waterbody to another from the federal Clean Water Act’s permitting and regulatory requirements. Under the new rule, the nation’s rivers, streams, and lakes would be at risk from the unregulated exchange of pollutants from one waterbody to another, threatening healthy, pristine waters with the introduction of invasive species, toxic algae, chemical pollutants, excess nutrients, turbidity, and alteration of habitat (such as introducing warm water into a cold water stream or salt water into fresh water). Federal courts in New York and Florida have already ruled that the Clean Water Act applies to water transfers, rejecting the EPA’s arguments. Despite these clear court rulings, the EPA has refused to apply the Clean Water Act to regulate potentially harmful water transfers.
The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center filed the petition on behalf of the Michigan Council of Trout Unlimited, joined by Midwest Environmental Advocates on behalf of Clean Water Action Council of Northeastern Wisconsin. (Huge thanks to Great Lakes Environmental Law Center board chair KathrynLoomis and Wayne Law student Jim Roush for their excellent work.)
Opposing North Dakota Water Diversions
The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center is also currently opposing several proposed transbasin water diversions in North Dakota. These proposed transbasin water diversions would have major environmental impacts, cost federal taxpayers unjustified amounts, and undermine a long history of cooperation between the U.S. and Canada on water management. The proposed diversions also set a dangerous precedent for the Great Lakes, where a large transbasin diversion could be devastating to our environment and economy.
GLELC webpage water diversion imageThe Great Lakes Environmental Law Center is urging Secretary of Interior Dick Kempthorne to stop the proposed Red River Valley Water Supply Project in North Dakota. The Red River of the North flows northward from South Dakota forming the boundary between North Dakota and Minnesota. The State of North Dakota and local government officials, supported by the Bureau of Reclamation, want to take water from the Missouri River and move it across the Continental Divide into the Red River of the North during times of low flow on the Red River. The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center – along with Missouri, Minnesota, Canada, Manitoba and numerous conservation organizations – supports a solution that uses water resources from within the Red River Valley to meet local needs. Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey show that sufficient water is present in the Red River Valley to meet reasonable needs for the foreseeable future. Alternative measures can meet the water needs of the basin at far less cost to both taxpayers and water users. Conversely, the proposed Missouri River diversion is extremely wasteful, using roughly four times as much water as the in-basin measures to meet the same need with far more environmental risks.
The GLELC recently won a huge victory against the NAWS project in federal court. Click here to read the opinion.
Additional resources on the proposed Red River Valley Water Supply Project:
- Red River Valley Water Supply Project homepage
- The Province of Manitoba’s analysis
- Great Lakes Environmental Law Center’s letter to Secretary of Interior Dick Kempthorne opposing the transbasin water diversion
The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center is similarly opposing another transbasin water diversion in North Dakota, the Northwest Area Water Supply (NAWS) project. The NAWS project would pump approximately 26 million gallons of water per day from the Missouri River through a pipeline over the continental divide into the Hudson Bay drainage basin. The water would first be routed to Minot, North Dakota, and then pumped to several other communities. The Missouri and Hudson Bay basins have been naturally separated for hundreds of thousands of years and each basin has developed its own unique ecosystems.
The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center is concerned with transbasin diversions for a variety of reasons. One significant problem with the NAWS project is that even with treatment, the risk of invasive species or harmful biota transfer between the basins remains unacceptable. Further, there is questionable need for the project in the first place based on demographics, current uses, and population projections. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) also fails to adequately address water conservation opportunities. The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center believes that any proposed diversion of freshwater must be accompanied by a comprehensive conservation plan prior to serious consideration. Finally, the NAWS project fails to stress the importance of resource management through a watershed approach and a shared international perspective. The process to date has not respected the authority of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and has threatened to compromise U.S. - Canada relations.
Additional resources on the proposed the Northwest Area Water Supply project:
- U.S. Bureau of Reclamation NAWS Project homepage (includes Draft EIS and comment letters)
- North Dakota State Water Commission NAWS Project homepage
- Great Lakes Environmental Law Center’s comment letter on Draft EIS
- Minot Daily Newsstory on the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center’s work on this issue, featuring Board member Nick Schroeck
- University of Manitoba Faculty of Engineering NAWS Project analysis