Conservationists Challenge Huge New Columbia River Water Withdrawal In Court
Suit challenges Corps of Engineers' failure to regulate the irrigation project, which harms salmon and steelhead
6/17/1999 -- -- Three conservation groups today sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in federal district court for failing to protect imperiled salmon and steelhead in eastern Oregon. WaterWatch, Trout Unlimited, and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center (NEDC), represented by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, challenged the Corps' actions in allowing a major new withdrawal of water from the Columbia River for irrigation use, despite the harmful effects on threatened salmon and steelhead. The groups contend that the Army Corps violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) about potential adverse impacts on salmon and steelhead, and by allowing the agricultural development to proceed without environmental review. The lawsuit also contends that the Corps has failed to use its authorities to conserve salmon.
"If Oregon is serious about saving salmon, we must protect the remaining water that flows in our rivers and streams," said Reed Benson, executive director of WaterWatch. "This project would give away a huge amount of water for one corporate farm, when irrigation already accounts for over 80 percent of water withdrawals in the Northwest."
"The Corps must take decisive action here to prevent harm to salmon and steelhead, but instead it is doing its best to look the other way," said Jeff Curtis, Western Conservation Director for Trout Unlimited. "This isn't a complicated situation: fish need water, and the salmon and steelhead of the Columbia River have suffered for decades as the river has been dammed and diverted for countless purposes. Before it approves another water withdrawal, the Army Corps must make sure it won't push salmon closer to extinction."
The new water withdrawal is proposed by a large corporate farm, Inland Land Co., to irrigate lands owned by the State of Oregon but leased to aerospace giant Boeing and subleased to Inland. These lands, just south of the Columbia River near Boardman, Oregon, currently provide valuable habitat for several rare wildlife species. Inland proposes to expand irrigation at the site by about 68,000 acre-feet of water per year. This would increase total water use on the Boeing lands to more than 170,000 acre-feet annually - well over the amount of water used by the City of Portland and its major suburbs, for nearly 800,000 people.
Two years ago, NMFS blocked the new water withdrawal by declaring that it would jeopardize the survival of threatened Snake River salmon. Inland now seeks to avoid federal jurisdiction by using an existing pump station on Willow Creek Arm of the Columbia River, at the John Day Pool. The Corps, despite NMFS' earlier disapproval of the project, has taken the position that Inland can expand its irrigation through that pump station with no new federal involvement. In the court challenge, the conservation groups contend that the Corps has the clear duty to regulate the new water withdrawal under permits it has already issued.
"The Corps is aiding and abetting Inland's harm to our salmon and steelhead," said Kristen Boyles of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "Instead of taking NMFS' findings to heart, Inland and the Corps are attempting an end-run around the Endangered Species Act."
Biologists have determined that because of existing irrigation withdrawals, mainstem Columbia flows already fall short of the levels needed to recover migrating Snake River salmon, listed as endangered under the federal ESA. To help save wild salmon, the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho have imposed various restrictions on new diversions from the Columbia system, amounting to a moratorium on new water use. In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has been purchasing and leasing 427,000 acre-feet of water each year from Idaho irrigators in order to augment flows for salmon in the lower Snake River, a major Columbia tributary. The state of Idaho and the Bureau have each sent letters opposing the withdrawal.
"NMFS already found that the new water withdrawals could be the last straw for these threatened salmon that are already on the brink," said Karen Russell of NEDC. "With the continued decline of fish species in the region, the Corps cannot turn a blind eye to problems under its control."
WaterWatch of Oregon is a nonprofit, membership organization dedicated to protecting and restoring streamflows in Oregon rivers to benefit of fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, recreation and other public values.
Founded in 1959 in Grayling, Michigan, Trout Unlimited is America's leading coldwater fisheries conservation organization. TU's 100,000 members in 455 chapters nationwide are dedicated to the conservation, protection, and restoration of North America's trout and salmon and their watersheds.
The Northwest Environmental Defense Center is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of the unique natural heritage of the Pacific Northwest. It was founded at the Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. in 1969.
The Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund is the nation's largest nonprofit, public-interest law firm, providing legal services at no charge to environmental and citizen groups who seek to enforce the law in order to protect our natural resources and human communities.