- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 24, 2015

RENO, Nev. (AP) - A federal judge in Nevada is postponing a decision on whether to block U.S. regulations protecting the greater sage grouse, partly because she’s not clear if the rules are really to blame for delays in construction of a rural water supply tank near Great Basin National Park along the border with Utah.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du granted an extension so lawyers can file additional briefs to supplement arguments they made last week during a two-day hearing in Reno. That means she won’t rule before Christmas on the request by nine Nevada counties and two mining companies to issue a temporary injunction freezing the regulations.

White Pine County officials say the new rules have thrown a monkey wrench in their plans to replace a leaking water tank posing a health and safety threat in the town of Baker about 40 miles southeast of Ely and 5 miles west of the Utah line.

Du wants more details on other factors the government says are contributing to any possible delay, including the need to conduct an archaeological survey after Native American artifacts were found in the area.

Du said the plaintiffs submitted a letter from the chairman of the Baker Water and Sewer General Improvement District as evidence in the case just before last week’s hearing that says the community is “currently foreclosed from building the urgently needed storage tank” as a result of the grouse protections.

The letter “raises more questions than it answers,” the judge said in extending the filing deadlines to Dec. 28.

District Chairman David Sturlin said the project was put on the fast track earlier this year after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management indicated an environmental impact statement would not have to be completed to grant a right of way on federal land necessary to build a new tank adjacent to the existing one.

But he said that after the new land planning amendments were issued in September, the agency changed its mind and indicated it would have to consider the matter further because the area has been identified as containing important habitat for sage grouse.

“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,” Sturlin wrote in the Nov. 9 letter.

“The BLM expressed that they could not provide us with a timeline as to when the required surveys will be complete, leaving our tank replacement project in limbo,” he said. “With the storage tank leak getting progressively worse, it is just a matter of time before bacteria enters the water supply and puts the community at risk, not to mention the potential loss of fire protection.”

Du said she wants more details to prove the project was expected to be exempted from environmental review. She wants to know “the status of such review and the resulting delay, if any.”

Justice Department lawyers said an exemption can be granted if the project developers can show it would have a net gain in conservation of sage grouse habitat, or if the developers could establish that it would have no direct or indirect impact on the bird.

Amy Lueders, the Bureau of Land Management’s Nevada state director, testified at the hearing that the adoption of the planning amendments was a critical factor in Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s decision in September denying the grouse protection under the Endangered Species Act. “If we kept doing what we were doing, we likely would have ended up with a listing,” Lueders said.

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