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Illegal Irrigation Hurting Salmon

Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund
Press Release - April 19, 2000

Fishermen Request Injunction To Halt "Water Spreading"
in Columbia and Snake River Basins

PORTLAND, OR -- Fishermen and conservationists filed a motion in Federal District Court today seeking to stop illegal irrigation from federal water projects in the Columbia and Snake River basins. The groups have asked the Court to order the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to immediately stop delivering irrigation water from Federal water projects to unauthorized users, a practice known as "water spreading."

Water spreading removes water from rivers and tributaries in the basin already suffering from flows that are inadequate for salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act. Federal agencies identified putting an end to water spreading as a top priority for saving endangered salmon years ago, yet the problem has never been addressed.

"One of the most pervasive threats facing salmon comes not from one of the four Hís" said Todd True, Senior Attorney at Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, referring to Hydropower, Hatchery, Harvest, and Habitat. "The biggest threat comes from a fifth H Ė handwringing: the governmentís continuing practice of identifying measures to protect and restore listed salmon but then failing to actually implement those measures." As early as 1995, the National Marine Fisheries Service ordered the Bureau and other agencies to increase the amount of water devoted to "flow augmentation" in the Snake and Columbia rivers so that flows are sufficient for migrating salmon. Every year since 1995, however, flows have fallen far short of levels needed by fish, even though recent years have seen precipitation levels well above average. Water spreading, by illegally removing water from rivers and tributaries in the basin, contributes to these low flows. "Illegal means illegal and it should be stopped immediately. Where there is illegal use, it is jeopardizing salmon recovery as well as downriver water users," said Glen Spain, Northwest Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermenís Associations. "Just because some farmers believe they stole the water fair and square is not an excuse in court." A 1994 Department of Interior report estimated that water spreading from just a handful of Columbia basin projects operated by the Bureau removed almost 300,000 acre-feet annually from the river system, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to the federal treasury. The report named specific water projects in the Snake Basin where water spreading occurs, and estimated that the Bureau delivered about 85,000 acre-feet of water to illegal users from just six of eleven projects there. The problem is particularly acute in the Snake River basin, where flow augmentation to push migrating salmon past the four lower Snake River dams remains highly controversial. "The four lower Snake River dams turn the river into warm, slack-water reservoirs. More fast, cold water is needed now to help the fish survive their trip around the dams," explained Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund attorney Jan Hasselman. "Stopping illegal irrigation in the basin is one step we can take now towards achieving these higher flows."

Earthjustice lawyers were also quick to point out that this was a "shot across the bow" at irrigators in the Snake River basin.

"Western politicians brush off the notion that their water must go if the dams donít go," said Heather Weiner, Sr. Legislative Counsel for Earthjustice. "This is a headís up that weíre serious about saving salmon. Politicians canít defend stealing water from the federal government, especially where the survival of Snake River salmon hangs in the balance."

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Trout Unlimited, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermenís Associations, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Oregon Natural Resources Council, and the Sierra Club. They are represented by Todd True and Jan Hasselman of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Seattle and Dan Rohlf of the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center in Portland Oregon. The case, Trout Unlimited v. Bureau of Reclamation, is assigned to Federal District Judge Malcolm Marsh in Portland.

Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund
Illegal Irrigation Hurting Salmon
Press Release April 19, 2000

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