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Commentaries and editorials

Environmentalists Sue to Block Drawdowns

by Gene Johnson, Associated Press
Capital Press, December 4, 2008

SEATTLE - Two environmental groups are going to court to try to block a government plan to take more water out of Lake Roosevelt, behind Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River.

Columbia Riverkeeper and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy say drawing down the lake's level to provide more water for salmon, agriculture, towns and businesses would expose more shoreline to sun and wind - and that as a result, toxic metals pumped into the lake by a smelter over the years could be released into the environment.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation is moving forward with the plan without conducting environmental analyses required by law, the groups said in a complaint filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

"We're way past the point where the bureau should have stopped and analyzed what the impacts would be," said Rachael Osborn, the environmental law center's executive director.

A committee of state and local officials, environmental groups, farm supporters and tribes agreed to the drawdown plan after the Legislature passed a bill in 2006 calling for new ways to ensure water supplies for growing communities in Eastern Washington and boost summertime stream flows for salmon. The plan would draw down Lake Roosevelt by as much as 132,500 acre feet. An acre foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre to a depth of one foot, or about 325,850 gallons.

Some of that water will remain in the river for fish and some will be used for new municipal and industrial water rights along the Columbia. The rest will provide surface irrigation for 10,000 acres of crops east of Moses Lake, where farmers have been relying on well water from the declining Odessa Aquifer, and to provide a more stable water supply for irrigators whose water rights are interrupted in drought years.

Osborn said the groups that filed the complaint do not have a problem with spilling the water for salmon.

Diana Cross, a Boise, Idaho-based spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation, said the agency had not reviewed the lawsuit and she could not comment on its specifics. Given that the plan was intended as a compromise among many interests, she said, "It's unfortunate that they felt they needed to do this."

The two environmental groups have also asked the state Pollution Control Hearings Board to block the plan, and a hearing is scheduled for next July. However, Osborn said the groups would likely seek to stay that proceeding while the federal lawsuit pends.

Among the issues the groups want studied before any drawdown occurs are the effects of climate change on the Columbia River, the effects of exposing toxic slag deposited by the Teck Cominco smelter just north of the U.S.-Canadian border, and the cumulative effects of proposals for new dams and new water projects on the river.

Gene Johnson, Associated Press
Environmentalists Sue to Block Drawdowns
Capital Press, December 4, 2008

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