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Irrigators: Nowhere to Go But to Court?

by Staff
Tri-City Herald, August 15, 2003

Usually, groups such as the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators are wise to argue their views on what's being done to help struggling fish runs without resorting to legal maneuvers.

Salmon recovery is best decided by biologists, not judges, and those concerned with it are usually best off working out their differences outside the courthouse.

But to make your case, you have to go where the forum is. And for now the discussion about what to do about salmon is headquartered in a Portland federal courtroom, where Judge James Redden ruled in May that the federal government's plan to save Columbia and Snake river fish runs is lacking.

The irrigators association belatedly tried to get time at the microphone after Redden issued his decision, but the judge refused. So now the Columbia-Snake group, along with the Eastern Oregon Irrigators Association, is looking to force the judiciary to give them a turn by filing their own lawsuit.

It's the right strategy, unfortunately.

Whether you agree with the association's arguments -- described by some as an attempt to recast how the Endangered Species Act is used -- one thing is for sure: The irrigators should be part of the discussion about salmon recovery.

There is a chance that, even by filing the 60-day notice of intent to sue in July, the irrigators have shifted the ongoing discussion in Redden's courtroom.

Redden has said he would limit the rewrite of the salmon recovery plan to two areas: remedies that are not certain enough to be implemented and remedies that rely on action by nonfederal entities, including states and tribes.

The irrigators want to go further. They contend the 2000 plan, or "biological opinion," makes the hydroelectric dams exclusively responsible for fish mortality and exaggerates the extinction risks to fish. They also argue that plentiful salmon runs in recent years should be considered as the plan is rewritten.

On that last point, the irrigators may have partially won already. The federal government, as part of its work to answer Redden's concerns, is updating its analysis of how fish stocks are doing to include more recent data, according to the Columbia Basin Bulletin, an independent salmon recovery newsletter. The new analysis shows better population growth in most cases, although perhaps not enough to eliminate a risk of extinction.

Redden might yet let the parties put more changes to the salmon recovery plan on the table. The best outcome would be if the irrigators' arguments were included into the ongoing review. Irrigators have said they will drop their legal challenge if that happens.

The parties don't need another legal action to divert attention from the important work already at hand.

At the same time, there is no use in having discussions that shut out a group as vital to the salmon recovery issue as farmers. Such an approach is bound to produce an unworkable blueprint.

Irrigators: Nowhere to Go But to Court?
Tri-City Herald, August 15, 2003

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