By Rocco Davis
San Bernardino Sun
Saturday, November 26, 2016
When it comes to the future of the American West, few things are as important as fundamental infrastructure. The challenge of fixing all that ails it, after more than a generation of neglect, is daunting. But, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, fix it we must: these experts grade our water resources as being in a “D” condition; energy resources, a D+; roads and transit, a D; and rail infrastructure, a C+.
Given the scope of the problem, the last thing we need is illogical or politically driven distortions of the regulatory process that make it even harder to attract and implement needed investment.
A case in point is the Cadiz Water Project pipeline, which would address the water crisis for 400,000 people in Southern California, while also creating 5,900 good, family-supporting jobs and $878 million of economic activity. Although it received all of its permits in accordance with some of the nation’s strictest environmental regulations and was green-lighted by trial and appellate courts, the project has languished at the hands of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The design ingenuity of the project places the pipeline along a railroad right-of-way. Throughout the West, transportation corridors are often used for infrastructure such as water pipelines, fiber optics and electrical lines, so that pristine lands need not be disturbed. Under BLM rules, the pipeline is required to further railroad purposes in order to occupy the right-of-way. To meet that requirement, Cadiz committed to dedicate water and hydropower to the railroad to make possible automated fire suppression and a transloading station, as well as water for other critical purposes. The project will also create an eco-tourist steam train operation and cultural center to help the public learn more about both American railroads and the Mojave Desert environment.
Clearing this last hurdle from the BLM should have been a breeze. Instead the BLM has tried to stop the project in its tracks, choosing to set a new standard that will apply to every utility using or planning to use such a railroad right-of-way on federal land. In a controversial decision issued last year, the agency determined the pipeline was outside the scope of the railroad’s right-of-way despite its many benefits for the railroad’s operation — in one stroke changing years of historical precedent. In one section, they found that a water pipeline which would provide for fire suppression couldn’t satisfy the railroad purposes test because it is not yet a common industry practice. Instead BLM advocated that the railroad just throw sand on any fires rather than accept Cadiz’s innovative water-line benefits.
It appears that by changing the rules for a single water pipeline, the BLM’s motive may be to block the project itself, not enforce existing regulations. If BLM’s decision stands, it will mean expensive and sometimes prohibitive delays for using these existing, sensible corridors throughout the West. It will damage or end the partnership between utilities and our nation’s railroads and destroy the environmental benefits currently enjoyed by the American public.
Some in Congress want to fix this problem. The U.S. House Oversight Committee, alarmed at the BLM’s apparent bias, has gotten involved. And legislators in the House have included a straightforward amendment in this year’s federal appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior. The language would clarify that the scope of railroad rights-of-way should be interpreted as it has been historically, allowing third-party uses that benefit the railroad and the infrastructure of the nation.
Organizations ranging from unions to infrastructure and agriculture advocates — as well as more than 100 community members and business leaders in the West and a bipartisan list of members of Congress — have voiced support for this legislative fix. House and Senate leaders, particularly those from the West, where BLM controls 47 percent of all property, should support the bill as well.
The legislation is a no-brainer for the half-million men and women of LIUNA who want to go to work every day doing the hard job of building and rebuilding the backbone of our nation. Railways will benefit from railroad improvements and utilities will benefit from a better permitting process. Workers and their families will win with good jobs and the water, natural gas, telecommunications and electricity that rail right-of-way projects convey, and our environment benefits through the protection of undisturbed open lands. We’re counting on Congress to set the BLM straight.
Rocco Davis is vice president and Pacific Southwest regional manager for LIUNA — the Laborers’ International Union of North America — representing 70,000 working men and women and their families.