Judge Rules in Favor of Irrigatorsby Matthew Weaver
Capital Press, May 27, 2010
Judge says federal agency complied with all requirements
A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation can continue with plans to draw more water out of Lake Roosevelt, despite environmental groups' complaints.
In his opinion, filed May 21, U.S. District Judge Robert H. Whaley granted the bureau's motion for summary judgment.
The Center for Environmental Law and Policy and Columbia Riverkeeper had claimed the bureau violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to release a timely environmental assessment or environmental impact statement for its plans to provide more water for irrigation and other uses.
They also argued that the bureau limited their alternatives by entering into a 2004 memorandum of understanding with Washington state and three irrigation districts for water rights before beginning the NEPA report.
Whaley found the bureau had complied with the NEPA timing requirement and adequately considered alternatives to the project and its cumulative impacts.
"It would be unreasonable and inefficient to require a federal agency to merely reiterate a state agency's work, particularly where that work is the product of ongoing collaboration between the two sets of agencies," Whaley wrote.
The project represents the culmination of a collaborative process involving several stakeholders, Whaley wrote, and he did not find the final environmental assessment's consideration of alternatives to be arbitrary.
"The court rejects plaintiffs' argument that defendants' procurement of water rights permits before preparing NEPA documents unreasonably limited the scope of alternatives defendants considered," Whaley wrote. "Rather, defendants and their state counterparts considered and reasonably rejected the very alternatives plaintiffs propose."
Bill Gray, area manager of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Yakima, Wash., said the bureau will continue with its work.
"It will take a while yet," he said. The industrial component of the drawdown requires the bureau to contract with the state for water, while the Odessa component also requires contracts with the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District and completion of the Weber Siphon, expected to be ready for water in March 2012.
Environmental center executive director Rachael Paschal Osborn said she was disappointed and considering whether to appeal the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
"We continue to believe the bureau has made an unlawful decision in moving forward with the project in the manner they have," Osborn said.
The center's concern is that the Columbia River is overappropriated for water rights, with inadequate flow to meet all needs for the current diversions and maintain in-stream flows for fisheries and water quality.
"We are very concerned that there has been a complete failure to consider the coming impacts of climate change on the river system," Osborn said. "In the future, there will be even less water than there is now. The commitment of additional water resources out of stream is a very poor idea."
About the project
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials want to improve water management in the Columbia River Basin by releasing additional water from Lake Roosevelt, according to the environmental assessment.
Under the proposed action, a total of 82,500 acre-feet of water would be available in a non-drought year for municipal and industrial use, as well as to residents of the Odessa Subarea in Eastern Washington who irrigate with a valid state groundwater right. In a drought year, releases would total 132,500 acre-feet.
Columbia Basin Development League: www.usbr.gov/pn/programs/ea/wash/lakeroosevelt/index.html
Columbia Basin Development League: www.cbdl.org
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