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Irrigators Sue Over Salmon Recovery

by Chris Mulick, Herald Olympia Bureau
Tri-City Herald, October 1, 2003

Two irrigators associations sued the federal government as expected Tuesday over its already legally flawed salmon recovery plan.

What is known as the 2000 biological opinion already is being rewritten after a federal judge ruled the plan included remedies to comply with the Endangered Species Act that are not certain enough to be implemented.

In July, the Columbia-Snake River and Eastern Oregon irrigators associations notified NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency that wrote the plan, of their intent to sue, hoping the judge will consider other changes they believe are needed. The groups argue the plan places too much blame on dams for fish mortality while not recognizing increasing salmon runs.

"The simple message here is 'Judge, the hydro system is not broken. ... and try not to trip over all the fish when you're crossing the river,' " said Darryll Olsen, a consultant for both irrigator associations.

U.S. District Judge James Redden gave NOAA Fisheries a year to revise the biological opinion when he ruled in May, but things have progressed slowly. Olsen is hoping agency Regional Administrator Bob Lohn will agree to press Redden to consider the irrigators' complaints.

Though they're optimistic, the irrigators were unable to get a firm commitment and opted to file the lawsuit.

"We're led to believe the agency is gingerly trying to suggest there are other issues that need to be investigated," Olsen said. "Lohn has given us every indication he is interested in pursuing these items. His legal counsel has not disagreed."

The irrigators also want the plan to reflect fish return data from the past three years, which feature some of the highest fish counts on record.

Environmental groups that filed the initial lawsuit challenging the salmon recovery plan are considering another in the matter and have filed notice of intent, though they've since suspended it while they negotiate with the federal government. They want operations at dams on the upper Snake River included in the plan and an amount of water needed each year to augment flows for fish defined.

Currently, upper Snake River dams operated by the Bureau of Reclamation are addressed in a separate biological opinion.

"We think there is an artificial distinction being made," said Rob Masonis, Northwest regional director for American Rivers. "Any valid salmon recovery plan needs to include both those pieces. (The upper Snake River and the lower Snake River) They're inextricably linked."

Chris Mulick
Bush Plans Visit to Region Friday
Tri-City Herald, October 1, 2003

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