UPDATE: Judge denies Fernley request in canal fight
UPDATE, 4:45 p.m., Friday
RENO — A federal judge denied Fernley’s request for an emergency order Friday to force the Trump administration to extend a comment period on plans to repair a 115-year-old irrigation canal after the coronarivus pandemic prompted cancellation of public meetings on the project.
The town says the Bureau of Reclamation’s plans to make the dirt canal safer would cut off seepage of water from the irrigation system into the groundwater aquifer tapped by local domestic wells that more than 450 residents rely on as their sole source of water.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du ruled Friday in Reno there is no legal basis for the “extraordinary remedy” sought by Fernley.
“Reclamation decided in-person meetings were no longer appropriate,” she wrote. “The court finds that decision was within Reclamation’s discretion.”
RENO — The Trump administration is urging a federal judge to reject Fernley’s demands to extend the public comment period on plans to repair a 115-year-old irrigation canal until the governor lifts statewide restrictions regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation insisted in court filings in Reno on Thursday it is following the same comment guidelines Gov. Steve Sisolak adopted in mid-March in response to the virus outbreak as it moves forward with plans to make safer the earthen canal that failed and flooded hundreds of homes in Fernley in 2008.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du hasn’t indicated whether she will rule in the case before public comment is scheduled to close Monday. Fernley wants her to order the bureau to accept comment until at least a month after the governor lifts his emergency virus orders.
The town says the bureau’s desire to line the dirt bottom of the canal with concrete or other material would prevent normal seepage of water into the aquifer accessed by domestic wells more than 450 residents rely on as their sole source of water.
Among other things, the bureau maintains U.S. taxpayers own the water — not the town of Fernley.
The dispute over the 45-day public comment period stems from the administration’s 2017 executive order intended to expedite — critics say short-circuit — environmental reviews that slow the approval of energy exploration, mine expansions and other development on federal lands.
Because of the governor’s virus-related restrictions, the bureau canceled public meetings March 24 to 25 and subsequently denied Fernley’s request for an extension, explaining that residents still can download the documents and offer comments online. It’s allowing people to request copies of documents and plans to accept comments beyond Monday.
The website established to accept comments is “consistent with the way the state of Nevada has revamped its public meetings during the pandemic,” the bureau said. Sisolak also allowed for alternatives that include, “without limitation, telephonic or email comment,” it said.
“In the meantime, Fernley could have chosen to help its at risk citizens who don’t use the internet to mail their comments to Reclamation, and could be encouraging them to call the phone number Reclamation has provided,” the bureau said.
The agency acknowledges the project “will significantly reduce the seepage of surface water from the canal that artificially recharges the aquifers used by certain residents of Fernley for a domestic supply.”
“Fernley’s opposition is well known to Reclamation,” it said.
In a response filed Friday, the town said it doesn’t oppose repairing the canal, only the alternative that would extend the new lining intended to fortify the earthen walls throughout the canal’s floor.
Several viable alternatives would repair the canal “without the extreme and destructive environmental impacts that will result from canal lining,” the town said.
It says the bureau’s “baffling intransigence” ignores the undisputed extraordinary nature of the current national emergency.
The “outrageousness” of the bureau’s position is underscored by the extension of similar deadlines by the Forest Service and Bureau of Management as well as the fact the canal project “has no identified source of funding, and no established timeline for construction,” the town’s lawyers said.