Town of Grand Lake keeps close eye on Florida water case
Colorado’s largest natural lake, Grand Lake, has a new-found affinity with the state of Florida’s largest natural lake.At least in a legal sense, new attention may be brought to the declining water quality of Grand Lake through a case that could be tried in the U.S. Supreme Court involving Lake Okeechobee, a 730-square-mile lake in southern Florida.The Town of Grand Lake and two citizen groups, The Greater Grand Lake Shoreline Association and The Three Lakes Watershed Association – with the backing of Grand County – have filed a brief in support of a case that centers on the threatened health of Lake Okeechobee.The amicus curiae (or ‘friend of the court’) brief supports a petition by attorneys and advocacy groups in Florida hoping to overturn a federal court ruling that states water transfers are not subject to the Environmental Protection Agency’s stringent Clean Water Act permitting requirements.The Friends of the Everglades, Florida Wildlife Federation and Fishermen Against Destruction of the Environment contend that backpumping of water containing pollutants from canals into Lake Okeechobee required permitting through the EPA.In June 2009, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Friends of the Everglades v. South Florida Water Management District ruled in support of the “unitary waters theory,” an EPA-accepted guidance that all waters of a system belong to the United States, therefore pollutants in one body of water do not “add” pollutants to other “waters of the United States.”That ruling conflicts with another federal court ruling that took place in New York involving a water transfer from Schoharie Reservoir through the Shandaken Tunnel to Esopus Creek, a system that reverses natural flows to supply drinking water to New York City residents. The Catskill Mountains Chapter of Trout Unlimited alleged that the tunnel discharges pollutants into Esopus Creek. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the City of New York should be subject to permitting requirements under the Clean Water Act. Because of these conflicting decisions, the topic of whether water transfers are subject to Clean Water Act permitting requirements could be reviewed by the Supreme Court. The outcome of any such ruling could have bearing on Grand Lake’s future, since it is part of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which pumps water from reservoirs into Grand Lake and through the Alva B. Adams Tunnel to cities and power utilities in Northern Colorado.Already, Colorado has classified Shadow Mountain Reservoir, water from which travels into Grand Lake, an “impaired water body pursuant of the Clean Water Act … due to its low concentrations of dissolved oxygen,” according to the Grand Lake amicus brief.”The seasonal pumped transfer of water from Shadow Mountain Reservoir into Grand Lake seriously impacts the lake,” the brief states. “These impacts started soon after completion of the reservoir and the first water transfers.”In 2008, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission established minimal water-quality standards for Grand Lake, but if the “unitary waters” theory holds up, the brief argues, there would be “no practical way” to ensure that the water quality standards for the lake can be met.”It’s in Grand Lake’s best interest to take a look at this case,” said Grand Lake Town Manager Shane Hale. “From our standpoint, it seemed like a case we didn’t want to ignore. It seemed like a case that was too important for us to stand on the sidelines.”Upon a request from Grand Lake, Grand County commissioners agreed to contribute $10,000 out of its Water Quality budget to help pay for legal fees, likely to cost $16,000 to $20,000. The Town of Grand Lake may pay around $3,500, according to Hale, with the Shoreline and Watershed groups also contributing. The firm Temkin Wielga & Hardt LLP of Denver was retained, and the amicus brief was officially filed on Sept. 10. – Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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