[Federal Register: February 3, 2011 (Volume 76, Number 23)]
[Page 6114-6116]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]

                                                Federal Register

This section of the FEDERAL REGISTER contains documents other than rules 
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statements of organization and functions are examples of documents 
appearing in this section.


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Forest Service

Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico, North Fork Eagle Creek Wells 
Special Use Authorization

AGENCY: Forest Service, USDA.

ACTION: Notice of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement.


SUMMARY: The Lincoln National Forest will prepare an Environmental 
Impact Statement (EIS) to document and publicly disclose environmental 
effects of issuing a new special use permit to the Village of Ruidoso 
(the applicant) for continued operation of their municipal water supply 
wells on the North Fork of Eagle Creek, located on National Forest 
System land. The new permit would include additional terms and 
conditions for adaptive management (monitoring, evaluation, and 
modification) to ensure management objectives are met. Management 
objectives include:
    (1) Providing water management flexibility and water conservation 
incentives to the Village of Ruidoso, in a way that does not foreclose 
opportunities to transfer a portion of their water rights for these 
wells to locations off of National Forest System land; and
    (2) Minimizing impacts of groundwater drawdown from this well field 
to maintain surface flows and protect water-dependent ecosystems.
    North Fork of Eagle Creek is located in the Sacramento Mountains of 
south-central New Mexico in Lincoln County north of the Village of 
Ruidoso and approximately 2.5 miles west of Alto, New Mexico.

DATES: Comments concerning the scope of the analysis must be received 
by March 21, 2011. The draft EIS is expected in October 2011 and the 
final EIS is expected in June 2012.

ADDRESSES: Send written comments to NFEC Project, Smokey Bear Ranger 
District, 901 Mechem Dr., Ruidoso, NM 88345. You may also send 
electronic comments to the project e-mail inbox: comments-southwestern-
lincoln@fs.fed.us, or via facsimile to (575) 257-6174.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: The project Web site at http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/leaving.cgi?from=leavingFR.html&log=linklog&to=http://go.usa.gov/Yi9 or contact Deborah McGlothlin (559-920-4952), Eric 
Turbeville (575-630-3051) or Acting District Ranger George Douds (575-
    Individuals who use telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDD) 
may call the Federal Information Relay Service (FIRS) at 1-800-877-8339 
between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.



    Urban and resort development and drought conditions have placed 
increasing demands on surface water and groundwater resources of the 
Eagle Creek Basin. During 2001-2006, the Village of Ruidoso, New Mexico 
obtained approximately 31 percent of its water supply from the North 
Fork well field. During drought conditions prior to 2006, over 50 
percent of monthly total surface and groundwater diversions for the 
Village came from the North Fork well field (Village of Ruidoso 2006).
    The Village of Ruidoso drilled four production wells on National 
Forest System land along North Fork Eagle Creek. Three of these wells 
were put into service in 1988 and remain in use. Concerns have been 
raised regarding effects of pumping water from these wells. A lawsuit 
was filed in 2005 based on concerns that operating these wells could be 
affecting streamflow in Eagle Creek. A 2006 settlement agreement 
required the Lincoln National Forest to complete an environmental 
analysis and undertake an independent study of effects of well pumping 
before a new permit could be issued to the applicant.
    The United States Geological Survey (USGS) conducted the 
independent study from 2007-2009 to determine potential effects of the 
North Fork well field on streamflow in the Eagle Creek Basin and to 
provide data for this EIS. The final report was released on October 21, 
2010. Findings show that during the study period there was less 
available sustained baseflow than there was before the wells began 
pumping in 1988.
    When groundwater is pumped from the North Fork wells, it causes a 
temporary decline in groundwater which lowers the water table and 
creates an expanding cone of depression around the wells. If the cone 
of depression continues to expand, it can impact water dependent 
resources outside the stream corridor. This situation is exacerbated by 
location of the wells within the stream channel, together with low 
storage capacity of the aquifer.
    Although years of below-average precipitation were recorded during 
both time periods, there were no days of zero flow recorded at the 
Eagle Creek gage from 1969-1980. No-flow days were recorded in 11 years 
(totaling 789 days) of the 20 years analyzed after 1988, with 8 of the 
last 10 years having no-flow days. No-flow days occurred during periods 
of both below-average and above-average precipitation during the study 
period, but no-flow days did not occur during periods of below average 
precipitation before 1988. It is important to note that the Eagle Creek 
gage measures flow from both North Fork and South Fork tributaries.

Purpose and Need for Action

    There is a need for (1) authorizing, under a special use permit, 
the Village of Ruidoso's legal right to access and divert groundwater 
from its North Fork Eagle Creek wells on National Forest System land, 
as an important part of the municipal water supply system that Ruidoso 
residents and visitors rely upon; and (2) protecting natural resources 
on the national forest by maintaining adequate surface and groundwater 
flows to sustain or improve riparian and aquatic ecosystems that may be 
affected by groundwater drawdown from the pumping of these wells.

Proposed Action

    The Forest Service proposes to authorize, under a new special use 
permit, the continued presence and operation of four municipal supply 
water wells (3 equipped and 1 unequipped) and associated monitoring 
wells, well-house control station and underground pipelines and 
powerlines on National Forest System land in the North Fork of Eagle 
Creek drainage. The new permit could be authorized for up

[[Page 6115]]

to 30 years, with stipulations for review and verification of the 
permit terms and conditions at least every 5 to 10 years. The new 
permit would be similar to the expired permit, with additional terms 
and conditions reflecting current adaptive management strategies which 
both respond to the purpose and need for action, and mitigate potential 
adverse impacts to surface and groundwater water resources from well 
    The adaptive management strategy would take into consideration the 
dynamic nature of groundwater systems by establishing a feedback 
process to guide the management of groundwater withdrawal rates over 
time. The NFEC basin is characterized as highly transmissive (water 
moves through it easily), yet with a relatively low groundwater storage 
capacity; two characteristics that make it sensitive to variations in 
precipitation patterns and intensity.
    Thresholds would be established for streamflows, water table 
depths, and riparian vegetation, as described below. Exceeding these 
thresholds would trigger implementation of adaptive management 
option(s) to mitigate the impact to surface resources. Adaptive 
management options currently under consideration include limitations on 
groundwater withdrawal rates; cessation of pumping for short periods; 
and/or surface flow augmentation. These options are simply an initial 
list being considered at this stage of planning; they may be revised as 
more analysis and evaluation is conducted during preparation of the 
EIS. In addition, a threshold would be established for the total volume 
of water withdrawn from the applicant's wells over a consecutive three-
year period, where exceeding the threshold would trigger a review of 
the other thresholds and mitigations to prevent degradation of surface 
    The proposed action would require the applicant and Forest Service 
to work in partnership, with assistance from the USGS, to conduct 
monitoring and adaptive management of ground and surface water 
resources. Four key monitoring indicators would be used, as described 
below, to evaluate effectiveness of this management strategy. This 
adaptive management strategy would be incorporated into terms and 
conditions of the permit.

Monitoring Indicators

    North Fork Surface Flow Volume. This metric would act as an 
indicator of surface and subsurface flows necessary to maintain or 
improve existing riparian vegetation conditions along the NFEC below 
the existing well field. The applicant would be responsible for 
continued collection of surface water flow data from the Eagle Creek 
stream gage, located just below the confluence of North Fork and South 
Fork tributaries. This gage records surface flow volume rates 
(quantities) in cubic feet per second (cfs). These data are collected 
and stored by the USGS, and available to the Forest Service and public 
on the USGS water data Web site (http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/leaving.cgi?from=leavingFR.html&log=linklog&to=http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis).
    If there are more than 20 days per year of no surface flow (less 
than 0.01 cfs) over a period of three consecutive water years at the 
Eagle Creek gage, or more than 30 no-flow days within any single water 
year (October 1-September 30), the applicant must reduce groundwater 
withdrawal rates from these wells. If either of those thresholds is 
exceeded, then groundwater withdrawals from the North Fork wells would 
be limited to 50 percent of the volumetric rate of surface flow at the 
North Fork gage (which is upstream from the wells) until surface flow 
at the Eagle Creek gage resumes.
    The following parameters and assumptions form the baseline on which 
the North Fork surface flow would be modeled and managed:
     Using a 3-year running average allows for natural 
fluctuations in precipitation and snowmelt runoff, and periodic short-
term drought cycles, considering historic trends.
     The 3-year threshold of 20 no-flow days is equal to about 
half the average number of no-flow days experienced since pumping began 
(1988-2009), and should result in an improved trend in surface flows 
and moisture regimes in the North Fork tributary and its associated 
riparian area.
     The number of no-flow days would be evaluated based on 
real-time daily recordings from the Eagle Creek stream gage. No-flow is 
defined as a daily recording of less than 0.01 cfs.
     It is recognized that Eagle Creek stream gage includes 
flow contributions from the South Fork tributary. For consistency with 
data gathered since 1969, the Eagle Creek stream gage will continue to 
be used, assuming that there will continue to be no measurable changes 
in human development or water use within the North or South Fork 
drainages. The South Fork and North Fork stream gages would also 
continue to be used in long-term monitoring, but have insufficient 
historical data to initially be used as an effective trigger.
    Water Table Depth. This metric would provide a continuous indicator 
of the status of groundwater storage within the NFEC basin. The 
applicant would continue to maintain monitoring well MW-1B and collect 
data on changes in the water table levels. Water table depth data (feet 
below surface) would be collected by USGS and stored in the USGS 
database. These data would be available to the Forest Service and 
public on the USGS water data Web site.
    Once 5 years of monitoring data from this well have been collected, 
including the 2 years of data collected prior to developing this EIS, 
the Forest Service would evaluate this data, and use the 5-year average 
water table depth to establish a threshold for average water table 
    The applicant would be required to maintain an average water table 
depth that is equal to or above this threshold over 3 consecutive water 
years. If groundwater pumping of North Fork wells results in a 
declining trend in the average water table depth over any 3 year 
period, the applicant would reduce diversions from the wells until the 
average water table depth is reestablished and the Forest Service 
determines that pumping may resume without creating further departures 
over a 3 year period.
    Riparian Vegetation. This metric would provide an indicator of the 
effects of groundwater withdrawal on the condition and trend of surface 
resources in and downstream from the NFEC basin. The Forest Service 
would fund annual or biannual monitoring of riparian vegetation in the 
project area to include the approximately 2-mile section between the 
wells and the Eagle Creek stream gage. This would provide a baseline so 
that any future changes in riparian vegetation in this area would be 
apparent with future monitoring. Long-term monitoring may occur on 
riparian areas above the well field as well as on a separate but 
similar stream reach (to use as a reference point). Monitoring would be 
conducted through a combination of permanent photo points and field 
inventories of vegetation canopy cover and species composition. Trends 
in riparian vegetation canopy cover, composition, or conditions would 
be evaluated and documented at least every 5 years.
    If there are measurable declines in riparian vegetation canopy 
cover, composition and/or condition over 5 years or longer, and the 
number of no-flow days at the Eagle Creek stream gage continue to 
average over 20 days per year, the Forest Service may require 
diversions from the wells to be reduced to below 50 percent of the 
annual average well diversions (afy) over the past five years, to help 
restore riparian vegetation.

[[Page 6116]]

    Well Pumping Volume. The applicant would continue daily monitoring 
and recording of groundwater withdrawals through the North Fork wells 
(pumping volumes in acre feet). Combined with precipitation and 
streamflow records over time, this metric would be used to develop an 
additional reliable indicator for modeling anticipated effects of 
groundwater withdrawals on surface resources within the NFEC basin.
    An initial threshold of 900 cumulative acre feet over any 3 
consecutive water years (300 acre feet per year) would trigger a review 
by the Forest Service of the current thresholds and mitigations at 
maintaining or improving surface resource conditions. This threshold is 
based on current modeling of the average groundwater recharge rate, 
after subtracting other known and assumed water losses from the NFEC 
system. If analysis results indicate that current thresholds and 
mitigations are not sufficient to maintain surface resource conditions, 
management of groundwater withdrawals would be adjusted to provide 
additional protections against further degradation of riparian and 
other surface resources within the NFEC basin.
    Adjustments in Management of Water Withdrawals. Every 5 years that 
the permit is in effect, or when triggered by exceeding the water 
withdrawal threshold described above, the Forest Service would evaluate 
and document monitoring results to determine effectiveness of the 
adaptive strategy and determine whether an adjustment to the parameters 
of this adaptive management strategy are warranted.
     Based on the 5-year evaluations, the Forest Service may 
relax or further restrict specific parameters of this adaptive 
management strategy, with modification to the permit.
     Adjusting these parameters would be based on Forest 
Service determinations of the extent to which the North Fork well 
operations are consistent with the purpose and need and identified 
management objectives.
    Adaptive management adjustments currently under consideration 
include: Limitations on groundwater withdrawal rates; cessation of 
pumping for short periods; and/or surface flow augmentation. These 
groundwater management options are a preliminary list being considered 
at this stage of planning; they may be revised as more analysis and 
evaluation is conducted during preparation of the EIS.

Possible Alternatives

    No Pumping Alternative: The Forest Service would not issue a new 
permit for the applicant's North Fork well operations and maintenance; 
the use of these wells would no longer be authorized and would be 
    No Action (No Change) Alternative: The Forest Service would issue a 
new permit for the applicant's North Fork well operations and 
maintenance with no change in existing well pumping operations; there 
would be no specific stipulations or limitations on well operations and 
the permit would be issued under the same terms, conditions, and 
history of water use that has been in operation since 1988.
    Stream Augmentation Alternative: This alternative, suggested by the 
applicant, would be essentially the same as the proposed action 
previously described, with one main difference. Exceeding the 
thresholds previously described for streamflows, water table depths, 
and riparian vegetation would trigger augmentation of streamflow by 
pumping groundwater into the North Fork of Eagle Creek stream channel 
to mitigate adverse impacts to surface resources.

Responsible Official

    The Forest Supervisor of the Lincoln National Forest is the 
deciding officer for this project. The Forest Supervisor will issue a 
Record of Decision at the conclusion of the National Environmental 
Policy Act (NEPA) process, and after evaluating public comments 
received on the Draft EIS.

Decision Framework

    The Forest Service is the lead agency for the project. Based on the 
results of the NEPA analysis and consideration of public comments, the 
Forest Supervisor will authorize implementation of one of the 
following: (1) The agency's proposed action, including the adaptive 
management strategy and any mitigation necessary to minimize or avoid 
adverse impacts; or (2) an alternative way to meet the purpose and need 
for action, including any applicable adaptive management strategy or 
other mitigation necessary to minimize or avoid adverse impacts; or (3) 
the No Action/No Change alternative or the No Pumping alternative.

Preliminary Issues

    The main issue to be addressed is the effect that the proposed 
continuation of well pumping may have on hydrologic resources (surface 
water and groundwater) in the North Fork Basin, including potential 
cumulative effects downstream in the larger Eagle Creek watershed. 
Other issues identified thus far include effects of well pumping on 
aquatic habitat and fish (particularly brook trout), downstream 
recreational use (public use of streams for streamside recreation, 
fishing, and wildlife viewing), riparian vegetation condition, and 
municipal water supply.

Scoping Process

    This notice of intent initiates the scoping process, which guides 
development of this EIS. To assist the Forest Service in identifying 
and considering concerns about the possible consequences (effects) of 
the proposed action or possible alternatives being considered, comments 
should be as specific as possible. A public open house will be held at 
the Ruidoso Middle School (123 Warrior Drive, Ruidoso, New Mexico 
88345) on Thursday, February 17 from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Forest Service 
staff will be on hand to meet with the public, answer questions, and 
discuss the project and process. Comments may be submitted at the 
meeting, by e-mail, fax or letter within the 45-day scoping period.
    It is important that reviewers provide comments at such times and 
in such a way that they are useful to the Agency's preparation of the 
EIS. Therefore, comments should be provided prior to the close of the 
scoping period and should clearly articulate the reviewer's concerns 
and contentions. Comments, however, are welcome throughout the planning 
    Comments received in response to this solicitation, including names 
and addresses of commenters, will be part of the public record for this 
proposed action. Comments submitted anonymously will be accepted and 
considered; however, anonymous commenters will have no standing to 
participate in subsequent administrative review or judicial review.

    Dated: January 27, 2011.
Robert G. Trujillo,
Forest Supervisor, Lincoln National Forest.
[FR Doc. 2011-2371 Filed 2-2-11; 8:45 am]