The agency’s groundwater directive, unveiled in May 2014, had sparked a torrent of criticism from Republicans and Western governors who argued it could usurp states’ authority to allocate water.
The Forest Service’s notice of withdrawal in today’s Federal Register acknowledges those concerns but calls them unfounded. While the proposal was received favorably by tribes and conservation groups, the agency “must have further discussions” with other stakeholders before moving forward with the proposal, it said.
“The proposed directives did not, and any future actions will not, infringe on state authority, impose requirements on private landowners or change the long-standing relationship between the Forest Service, states, and tribes on water,” the notice reads. “The intent of any new groundwater proposed directive or next steps would be to establish a clearer and more consistent approach to evaluating and monitoring the effects of actions on groundwater resources of the National Forest System.”
The move drew praise from House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), whose panel discussed the rule at a hearing in April with the Forest Service’s Leslie Weldon, deputy chief of the national forest system.
“Finally, after more than a year, states and private water rights holders can have some peace of mind in knowing this policy is now officially off the table,” Bishop said in a statement this afternoon. “From the outset the Forest Service failed to identify any practical or legal basis for this directive.”
Tidwell had announced in February that the directive had been placed on hold pending further discussions with Western stakeholders, but Bishop and five other leading Republicans in March asked that he permanently withdraw it (E&E Daily, March 13).
The withdrawal comes a day after a Senate Energy and Natural Resources panel held a hearing to discuss a GOP bill to combat what critics describe as “federal water grabs” in the West including the groundwater directive (E&E Daily, June 19).
The directive would have required the Forest Service to better account for how surface uses such as wells and mines would affect groundwater and groundwater-dependent ecosystems. If potential harm were discovered, the agency would work with forest users to mitigate those impacts.
Dozens of conservation groups rallied behind the directive, saying in comments submitted to the Forest Service that it provides long-overdue recognition of the interconnectedness of groundwater and surface water, and the need to better track how groundwater withdrawals affect ecosystems and downstream users.
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