TELLURIDE – Three conservation groups and two government agencies have filed statements of opposition against water right permit applications filed by Energy Fuels Resources Corp., which is seeking to build the nation’s first uranium mill in nearly three decades in Paradox Valley.
Telluride-based Sheep Mountain Alliance made one filing in opposition to the permit applications, while Red Rock Forests and Living Rivers, both based in Moab, Utah, together filed an opposition statement of their own.
“We’re basically questioning their water rights application,” said Sheep Mountain Alliance Director Hilary White.
“We wonder about their hydrology science, we wonder about the impacts to both the groundwater in that area and the other wells in that area; and we wonder about the impacts to the Dolores River,” she continued.
“We are concerned about the speculative nature of uranium mining and milling in the Southeastern Utah and Western Colorado and whether the company will hold the water under the application without ever developing the mill,” said Harold Shepherd, acting director for Red Rock Forests, in a press release.
“Also, as future years in the area become drier, should we be adding new stresses to the river system that will compound the impacts of climate change on instream flows and existing water rights,” he continued.
The Energy Fuels water permit applications seek underground and surface water that is tributary to the Dolores River for the development, operation and reclamation of the company’s proposed Piñon Ridge uranium mill that is currently undergoing review by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Two of the company’s claims seek the right to withdraw groundwater in the Chinle and Moenkopi formations, while a third seeks the right to collect precipitation to prevent its discharge into the local stream system.
“Because the Dolores river is in one of the most scenic and popular places for white water rafting and hiking in the western United States, it is currently being considered by the Bureau of Land Management for designation as a federally protected Wild and Scenic River,” said John Weisheit, conservation director for Living Rivers, also in a press release.
“We believe that diverting water form the river for use in the mill will threaten that status,” he continued.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management also filed individual statements of opposition against the applications.
The CWCB is concerned that an instream flow water right it owns on the Dolores River could be adversely affected by water rights sought by Energy Fuels, and noted the company’s lack of augmentation plan in its statement of opposition.
Additionally, the application presents insufficient information to fully evaluate the extent to which the CWCB instream flow rights may be injured, the statement notes.
Linda Bassi, chief of the CWCB’s Stream and Lake Protection Section, said that the filing was not unusual for her agency.
“We participate in Water Court cases to get protective terms and conditions,” she continued. “It’s not to stop the application but to ensure that it’s done in a way that will protect our water rights.”
Similarly, the U.S. government holds four water rights on public lands that are adjacent to the groundwater rights being sought by Energy Fuels that the BLM is concerned may be injured, “If the application is granted without terms and conditions related to monitoring and mitigating the impacts associated with the proposed wells,” the agency’s filing states.
As a result, the BLM, “Seeks to incorporate similar water rights monitoring and mitigation measures as part of the water rights decree in this case,” as those Energy Fuels has already committed to as part of a limited-term land use authorization granted by Montrose County.
Energy Fuels Chief Executive Officer George Glasier called the statements of opposition filed by the existing water rights holders “fairly standard,” and not unexpected.
“It’s a process you see all the time in Colorado,” he said.
As for the filings made by the conservation groups, “They can always file one; whether they have any merit because they don’t have any water rights I don’t know,” he continued.
“Just to file an opposition to say, ‘Hey, the fish are going to be harmed is probably not a statement that a [water] referee can do much with.’”
Glasier said he anticipated a series of conferences over the coming months to see if the differences with the objecting parties can be worked through.
“It will be a long process over the next year at least to sort out things with the water rights,” he said.