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Groups Sue Over Water for Fish

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, November 19, 1999

Conservation and fishing groups Thursday announced plans to file another suit against the federal agencies that are charged with protecting endangered Snake and Columbia river fish.

Their newest complaint alleges the federal government has failed to make sure there is enough water in the river system to sustain federally protected salmon and steelhead.

And they suggest tearing down the four lower Snake River dams would solve large parts of the salmon problem and take the pressure off the rest of the region.

That also is a proposed solution in a similar lawsuit filed in March that alleges violations of the Clean Water Act caused by the four federal Snake River dams above Pasco. That case has not been settled.

"The agencies can either do what needs to be done or they can face years of chaos in the region, and that is essentially what the status quo is ... total chaos," said Glen Spain with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, one of the groups preparing the lawsuit.

The move adds more pressure to an already volatile debate about the future of the Snake dams. And it shows some river user groups are almost sure to lose when the whole mess is sorted out - perhaps after years of litigation.

Environmental advocates are framing the region's choice as either tearing down the lower Snake dams or more than doubling the amount of water taken from Idaho to increase flows on the river.

The strategy essentially pits Idaho against Washington and threatens to divide irrigators in the two states as they try to protect interests that seem to be at odds.

Idaho and federal agencies are negotiating how much water the federal government will get for "flow augmentation," which means using water from Idaho reservoirs to speed up and cool the river.

There is wide disagreement about how well the program works - much like the divide over the effectiveness of breaching the four Snake dams to create a more natural river.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is looking at the possibility of more than doubling the amount of flow augmentation water from Idaho - and that doesn't sit well in a state where the economy revolves around tourism and farming.

The Idaho Legislature is expected to take up the water situation next session.

But the state's position already is clear.

"Simply draining Idaho is not the solution to the salmon issue," said Mark Snider, press secretary for Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

Already, federal agencies are under siege from numerous lawsuits as they prepare a plan due by spring outlining river operations in the next century.

"We usually keep as a working assumption that we are going to get sued ... early and often," said Ric Ilgenfritz, NMFS spokesman.

"We always keep uppermost as one of our goals that whatever we do has to be legally defensible and scientifically credible."

Groups including the Trout Unlimited, Water Watch of Oregon, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund said Thursday that they will sue the agencies in January if the government "does not immediately" start a complicated review of how much water is in the river system.

A 60-day notice is required before a lawsuit.

Ilgenfritz had not seen the notice Thursday and declined to comment on the specific allegations.

The threatened suit is based on several factors.

Allegations are that the government hasn't stopped illegal water diversions to more than 150,000 acres in the Northwest and that agencies "have failed to undertake most of the measures to improve water flows" that don't meet NMFS's standard.

"The agencies haven't lifted a finger to take the important steps NMFS has outlined, and time is running out," said Todd True with Earthjustice.

Mike Lee
Groups Sue Over Water for Fish
Tri-City Herald, November 19, 1999

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