Conservationists Threaten Suit Over New Columbia River Water Withdrawal
Corps of Engineers Should Reject Irrigation Project To Protect Threatened Salmon
3/25/1999 -- -- Three conservation groups have served notice that they intend to sue the Army Corps of Engineers under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). WaterWatch, Trout Unlimited, and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center say that the Corps is violating the ESA by allowing a major new withdrawal of water from the Columbia River for irrigation use, despite its potential harmful effects on threatened salmon and steelhead.
In a letter sent today to the Corps, the groups have said they intend to sue the Corps unless it complies with the ESA within 60 days. Conservationists contend that the Corps violated the ESA by failing to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) about potential adverse impacts on salmon and steelhead, and allowing the agricultural development to proceed without review.
"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 new irrigation, when irrigation already accounts for over 80 percent of water withdrawals in the Northwest."
"There is no question that the Corps should take decisive action here to prevent harm to the imperiled 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 had better make damn 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, Ore., currently provide valuable habitat for several rare wildlife species. Inland proposes to expand irrigation at the site by about 50,000 acre-feet of water per year. This would increase total water use on the Boeing lands to over 120,000 acre-feet annually - about the same amount of water used by the City of Portland and its major suburbs, for nearly 800,000 people.
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.
Two years ago, NMFS blocked the Inland proposal by declaring that a major new water withdrawal would jeopardize the survival of threatened Snake River salmon. Inland now seeks to avoid federal jurisdiction by using an existing pump station on the Columbia River. 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 permit. The conservation groups believe that the Corps has clear authority to regulate the new water withdrawal under permits it has already issued, and that the ESA requires the Corps to act.
"The Corps is playing deaf and blind to a problem that is squarely in front of it" said Karen Russell of NEDC. "Inland is attempting an end-run around the ESA, even after being told by NMFS that the water withdrawals may be the last straw for these threatened salmon that are already on the brink."
In addition to undermining restoration efforts for Pacific salmon and steelhead, the proposed water use - sprinkler irrigation for crops - would destroy the natural quality of these lands, which are among the last remnants of native grassland and shrub steppe habitat in the Columbia Basin. Numerous rare wildlife species inhabit these lands, including the Washington ground squirrel, Ferruginous hawk, and western burrowing owl, which are all listed as "sensitive" species under the Oregon Threatened and Endangered Species Act. The Washington ground squirrel is being considered for listing under the state ESA, and is a candidate species under the federal ESA.
This notice comes one week after NMFS listed nine additional Northwest fish populations under the federal ESA. One of these populations, steelhead trout in the mid-Columbia River basin, inhabits this area and would be most directly affected by the Inland withdrawal. Despite the new listings, the Corps has given no indication that it will take a close look at Inland's proposal.
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.