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State and federal land managers are preparing to authorize dozens of water wells to benefit livestock grazing in or near Bears Ears National Monument, whose groundwater is already depleted thanks to persistent drought.
Water improvements are nothing remarkable on public land, but environmentalists are frustrated that the Bureau of Land Management is considering new wells before the agency creates a plan for managing the monument’s protected resources, which include rare or imperiled species of plants, ancient Native American artifacts and countless springs.
Environmental groups characterize the projects as a “water grab” away from the natural systems and toward livestock. These wells could put at risk these natural and cultural treasures, the very resources the monument is designed to protect, according to Judi Brawer, a field attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA).
“They shouldn’t be doing any of this until they have a new management plan. New wells are not consistent with the new proclamation [signed last October by President Joe Biden],” Brawer said. “It should be up to the tribes in collaboration with the BLM where and if wells will be drilled and where and if livestock grazing will continue on those allotments.”
SUWA and the other groups contend the BLM’s usual multiple-use mandate is superseded by the monument designation, and the only uses allowed are those consistent with the protection of the objects and values the monument was designated to protect.
At the request of five tribes with cultural ties to the mesas and canyons surrounding Bears Ears Buttes, President Barack Obama initially designated the monument in 2016 under a proclamation that recognized grazing as a historic use that would be allowed to continue. But livestock would still remain subject to management prescriptions designed to protect the monument’s artifacts and natural values.
Thanks to the repeated redrawing of the monument boundaries, however, a management plan has yet to be developed for Bears Ears’ current 1.35-million-acre footprint.
In the absence of such a plan, the BLM leans on its outdated resource management plan for the Monticello field office and San Juan County’s resource management plan, which identifies livestock as a key component of the county’s economy, heritage and culture.
The BLM and Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) say the wells are needed to better spread cattle across the grazing allotments blanketing the monument.
“The uneven distribution of water resources has resulted in reduced livestock distribution, which, in turn, has resulted in uneven utilization patterns,” the BLM wrote in three draft environmental assessments (EAs) released this spring. “Improving distribution of livestock use, in part by improving the distribution of water wells throughout the Allotment, would enhance rangeland vegetation by providing greater opportunities to facilitate plant reproduction, recovery, vigor, and maintenance of desired plants.”
One EA covers six wells proposed by the TY Cattle Co. in the Red House area of the Lake Canyon allotment, and another covers three wells proposed by rancher Kenneth Black in the Slickhorn allotment. The public has until June 24 to submit comments on these environmental reviews. The third EA covers a single proposed well that would feed 13 half-acre earthen reservoirs on the Dugout Ranch on the Indian Creek allotment.
Currently, the permitters often haul water onto the range because existing water infrastructure can no longer provide adequate water, according to the BLM’s environmental reviews. Drilled to a depth of 400 to 800 feet, these wells would serve these underserved areas, eliminating the need to haul water.
Two of the Slickhorn wells would be drilled at the sites of abandoned holes drilled for oil and gas exploration that were never reclaimed, according to the EA. Each would produce water at a rate of 4 gallons per minute for 100 cows over a 2-month period each grazing season, which runs from October to June.
These 10 BLM wells are just a slice of proposed water projects for lands in and around Bears Ears. According to a database compiled by the Western Watersheds Project, as many as 46 wells are under consideration.
There would be a strong likelihood of “significant cumulative impacts” from these combined water projects on natural and cultural resources and associated aquifers, according to Laura Welp of Western Watersheds Project.
“Putting wells in will draw the cattle away from the degraded areas toward the new water and they can take advantage of the ungrazed forage,” said Welp, a former BLM staffer who used to work at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. “This is supposed to allow the degraded areas to recover, but in practice, you usually just end up with two degraded sites in the allotment instead of one.”
A better way to improve the distribution of cattle across the allotment is for the ranchers to put more riders on the range to move the animals around, she said.
But the BLM rejected this option.
“Water is essential for livestock survival which makes additional riding ineffective to distribute cattle into places that lack water, such as in areas with proposed water wells,” the agency’s assessment states.
The cost of these wells are to be borne largely by Utah programs geared toward range improvements and the ranchers themselves. Most are proposed by SITLA, which holds dozens of checkerboarded sections inside the monument. SITLA is trying to exchange those holdings for federal lands scattered around the state.
Trust lands are managed by the state to raise revenue for public schools. SITLA hopes to trade out of its Bears Ears holdings in exchange for land it can more easily monetize through mineral extraction or real estate development.
SITLA has coordinated with the BLM on the siting of its wells, according to Chris Fausett, SITLA’s deputy director. It has so far approved 23 wells, which are not subject to environmental reviews since they are not on federal land.
“Typically, they drill a well. They put a solar pump on it, have a small storage tank and then a pipe to a trough,” Fausett said. “It’s not a big footprint or anything like that.”
But according to environmentalists, it’s not enough to just examine these wells’ potential surface impacts. Their operation could disrupt the groundwater hydrology, sucking water from springs or other wells and increase grazing in places that can’t support it.
“If the wells are drilled, it will cause further degradation of the range by encouraging more cattle use,” Welp said in an email. “It could also complicate grazing management later on when the [state land] transfer is accomplished. Once the wells are in, it will be harder to decommission them and easier to keep current grazing stocking rates and management in place.”