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Irrigators Consent to NMFS Review

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, July 14, 2000

Columbia Basin irrigators swallowed hard Thursday and voted to try to gain protection from the Endangered Species Act by consenting to have their operations reviewed by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

But it's still anybody's guess as to what the districts will have to do to please the powerful fish protection agency. And that issue worries even irrigation districts that have been proactive in the salmon wars as they cling to federal contracts for water.

The much-delayed NMFS plan to reduce harm to fish from the Columbia River hydropower system could be made public by August, potentially giving irrigators a preview of how their operations must be modified to save fish.

"For better or worse, we will at an early date know what we are facing," said Roger Bailie, president of the South Columbia Basin Irrigation District board, which hesitatingly consented Thursday morning to an immediate "consultation" with NMFS. The process will be done under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act.

"We're going to find out what people think of our operation," Bailie said.

In response to the declaration of endangered salmon runs on the Columbia River, NMFS must inspect all federal actions that could harm protected fish. It was already looking at hydropower operations and the aggregate effects of irrigation projects across the Columbia Basin. Now the Columbia Basin will have its own review.

The East Columbia Basin Irrigation District approved the consultation process Wednesday, and the Quincy-Columbia Basin Irrigation District followed suit Thursday.

"In a way, a stamp of ESA approval is what we are angling for," said Dick Erickson, east district manager.

The three massive Basin irrigation districts -- covering roughly 650,000 acres -- would have to be fully reviewed at some point anyway. But by going under the microscope now, they hope to be on the side of the federal government if environmental challenges are filed against the operations at Grand Coulee Dam, Banks Lake and the rest of the Columbia's intertwined power and irrigation system.

"One of the significant things in being included in the consultation is that whatever fallout comes from litigation like that, you are sort of in partnership with the federal agency," Erickson said. "There is less of a chance of being singled out."

But Bryan Alford, director on the south district board, feared being singled out could lead to a greater risk of exposure for the project -- the kind of opportunity environmental groups might want to use for precedent. "We're a big target," he said. "First one to the woodshed, that's my thinking,"

In a July 12 letter, the Bureau of Reclamation advised that Basin irrigation districts consent to an expansion of the review by NMFS to include the operation of the irrigation system. Districts appeared to have little choice because the bureau and NMFS agreed "we are in position at this time to consult ... on the operation and maintenance."

South district's staff agreed because they are confident the bureau is working with good data about the project, and the district action will stand the test.

"If we are going to have a decent result out of this, this is probably the best time," said Richard Lemargie, Ephrata lawyer for the south district.

East district's Erickson agreed. "We basically think that we are just not hurting any fish."

But it's widely expected that NMFS will find "jeopardy" to salmon in bureau projects.

Ken Pedde, deputy regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation in Boise, predicted fish-friendly changes will need to be made at virtually all the agency's 31 projects in the Columbia Basin. Federal concern is over the effect of irrigation diversions and the ability to meet river flow targets set for fish at McNary Dam.

"We expect NMFS to ask for us to somehow deal with effects of (river) depletion from ... our projects," said Pedde, who declined to specify how the projects could be altered. "Mitigation would be to somehow minimize those impacts."

South district Manager Shannon McDaniel outlined possibilities for his board Thursday. They include drawing down Banks Lake below Grand Coulee Dam by 5 feet in July and August to provide more water for fish and a review of endangered species in the irrigation wasteways. Banks Lake water reductions would probably leave plenty of irrigation water in the system, though it's likely to irritate resort owners and vacationers

"There's ways they can do that that we could coexist just fine," Erickson said.

The big question mark, however, is what McDaniel's memo to the board called "some type of mitigation ... that is yet undetermined and which would address water diversions and impacts of return flows."

The concern is they would somehow conflict with the district's duty to deliver water to landowners.

Among the other challenges likely to crop up in the review are allegations by environmental groups of irrigation "water spreading" -- that is, farmers irrigating ground that's not part of the project.

"I am prepared to address that," said Lemargie. "Things have been alleged, and we haven't gotten to the proof stage yet. Districts and water users really haven't had their say."

Lemargie is confident the districts can emerge from the review alive. "We have rights guaranteed by the Bureau of Reclamation ... and the bureau has said numerous times that they intend to meet their obligations," he said.

Related Page:
NMFS Calls for Breach Preparations

Mike Lee
Irrigators Consent to NMFS Review
Tri-City Herald, July 14, 2000

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