The residents of the tiny community of Baker at the entrance to Great Basin National Park are concerned that their health and safety may be jeopardized for the sake of some vague concerns about perturbing sage grouse.
This past spring the Baker Water and Sewer General Improvement District board decided it had to replace its decades-old, 250,000-gallon leaking water storage tank located on a Bureau of Land Management right of way. There were fears that the leak might result in contamination of the water supply or put the community firefighting capability at risk for its approximately 100 users.
The board came up with a plan to build a new tank on a 30-by-100-foot site next to the current tank and then demolish the old tank. The district received fast track approval for a loan from the state, which receives funding under the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, contingent upon receipt of a BLM permit.
In September the Interior Department, of which the BLM is a division, decided the greater sage grouse would not be listed under the Endangered Species Act but instead issued thousands of pages of land use restrictions as a means of protecting the bird — which still is legally hunted in several states, including Nevada.
When water district board members met at the site with a BLM representative, they were hit with a verbal list of unanticipated demands and told an expensive and time-consuming environmental impact statement would be needed due to those new grouse regulations.
In a Nov. 9 letter to White Pine County commissioners outlining the district’s dire straits, water district Chairman David Sturlin and Treasurer Terry Steadman write, “We were originally told by the BLM that the review process would only take a couple of weeks to complete. It is now over a month since the sage grouse monkey wrench was thrown into the works. Our tank replacement project is now on indefinite hold, which has also caused the SRF administrators to stop any disbursement of funds. The district has already incurred expenses that were to be paid out of the State Revolving Fund which we can’t pay. Project delays ultimately translate into cost overruns. It is imperative that we complete this project prior to the start of summer when water consumption increases dramatically and the official fire season starts.”
Chris Hanefeld, a spokesman for the Ely office of the BLM, said the new sage grouse land use restrictions are not necessarily a problem. He said his office is currently processing a 30-year renewal for the district’s permit with an amendment to extend one section of fence 30 feet to accommodate the new tank.
“We certainly understand that it’s a priority for the community and it’s a priority for us as well,” Hanefeld said, though he was unaware of the problems the district was having with completing its loan.
He said the BLM is in the beginning phases of the process and is going down its checklist. Though he did not foresee any problem, he cautioned that he was not certain whether the sage grouse would be a factor.
Hanefeld said his office hopes to have all the paperwork completed in order for the district to begin construction by the spring of 2016.
Water District Chairman Sturlin was less than optimistic. He said in the latest meeting with a BLM representative the district was asked to provide what kind of equipment would be used and how long the construction of the new tank and removal of the old one would take.
“The curious thing to me was all that information they asked for was in the packet I sent to them originally. I guess to me that basically sent me the message that they did not even read the material I’ve already sent them,” Sturlin said. “So that’s not really encouraging.”
Yet to be addressed are other concerns raised by a BLM agent, who said the new tank was too tall and two smaller tanks should be built, the color needed to be changed, a survey for Indian artifacts would be needed, as well as sage grouse habitat survey and the abandonment of a right of way to a nearby spring.
The district contends the two-tank requirement is cost prohibitive, but it will paint it any color required. It also says those surveys were done years ago and state law requires a back-up water source to its deep water well.
Meanwhile, the project is in limbo.
A version of this column appears this week in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, the Lincoln County Record and the Sparks Tribune — and the Elko Daily Free Press.