Irrigators Claim Judge
by Mateusz Perkowski
Irrigators who rely on the Columbia and Snake rivers claim there's a serious error in a recent court ruling that rebukes Northwest hydropower operations.
U.S. District Judge Michael Simon recently held the federal government's plan for operating 14 Northwest hydroelectric dams unlawfully jeopardizes threatened and endangered fish.
The ruling criticized several federal agencies for disobeying earlier orders to make "more aggressive changes" to the hydropower system and for spending billions of dollars on habitat restoration with little effect on imperiled species.
Federal agencies have repeatedly been urged to consider breaching or removing four hydropower dams along the Snake River to ease fish passage, but they have "ignored these admonishments" and "done their utmost to avoid considering" this action "for decades," the judge said.
These findings were key in Simon's conclusion that federal plans to mitigate negative fish impacts were "arbitrary and capricious" in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
However, the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association argues the judge is wrong because the government has studied in detail the possibility of breaching the dams.
"It's a major procedural error. Frankly, it shows the level of bias in the decision," said Darryll Olsen, board representative of the CSRIA.
The group has filed a motion asking Simon to correct his opinion because multiple studies have examined breaching the dams, including a seven-year analysis that rejected dam removal because it would increase water temperatures to the detriment of fish.
The CSRIA hopes the motion will persuade Simon to reconsider his ruling or convince federal agencies to challenge the decision before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Olsen said.
"To suggest it has not been reviewed is dead wrong," he said. "I don't think he can just blow it off."
Removing the dams wouldn't improve the survival of protected fish or end litigation, so that option wouldn't help irrigators affected by the lawsuit, Olsen said.
Irrigators are concerned about the hydropower litigation -- which has lasted for 15 years -- for multiple reasons, he said. "It makes anything we do in water management more difficult."
Requiring more water to be left in-stream for fish would reduce supplies for irrigators if state regulators refuse to issue new water rights or require irrigators to give up water when transferring or changing water rights, he said.
Environmentalists want to reduce the amount of water stored in reservoirs, claiming this would improve flow rates, which would further reduce availability.
The enormous cost of changing the hydropower system to aid fish recovery also drives up the cost of electricity, on which irrigators spend a lot of money for pumping water.
"We are definitely worried because you never know how state and federal agencies will react," Olsen said.
The CSRIA hopes that judge's most recent rejection of federal plans for the hydropower system -- the fourth such ruling -- may spur the formation of a special "Endangered Species Act Committee," also known as a "God Squad," which could exempt the dams from ESA requirements as long as mitigation measures are implemented.
Otherwise, it's unlikely the litigation by environmental groups will cease, Olsen said. "They can simply challenge this thing ad nauseum."
Read the judge's full ruling.
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