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Groups Sue Over Lake Drawdown

by K.C. Mehaffey
Wenatchee World, December 2, 2008

SEATTLE - Two environmental groups filed a lawsuit Monday to stop Washington state from drawing down Lake Roosevelt in a plan that would provide water to fish, irrigation and new development.

The Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Columbia Riverkeeper say the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's application to draw down Lake Roosevelt by one foot requires a more thorough environmental analysis through the National Environmental Policy Act.

In the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, the groups say toxins that will be exposed when the lake is lowered will threaten the health and safety of the public.

Climate change is not mentioned in the complaint filed, but is among the major issues not addressed in the plan, those filing the suit said.

The state Department of Ecology's plan would distribute 82,000 acre-feet of water in normal years and 50,000 acre-feet in drought years in a three-way split - leaving some of the water in the river for fish, providing some for groundwater in the Odessa Subarea impacted by irrigation, and issuing new municipal and industrial water rights to cities along the Columbia River.

The groups are asking a federal judge for a preliminary or permanent injunction to prevent the state from taking any action in the Lake Roosevelt Drawdown Project until the Bureau of Reclamation has analyzed the environmental impacts.

Diana Cross, Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman in Boise, Idaho, said Monday afternoon she hadn't seen the complaint, but understands it's an attempt to stop the plan to use Lake Roosevelt water for fish, cities and irrigation.

"This whole program is designed to also provide in-stream flow water for fish, and water for municipalities. What's not to like?" she asked.

She said it will be up to lawyers to determine if the Bureau had taken any action that require NEPA analysis.

Joye Redfield-Wilder, spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology, said the state issued an environmental impact statement on its plan, and the same two groups already appealed it in October. A hearing is set before the state's Pollution Control Hearings Board in June.

"We are going to proceed with other work in the meantime" to push the project forward, she said.

In the complaint, the groups contend Lake Roosevelt - a wide part of the Columbia River formed by Grand Coulee Dam - has collected toxic metals which will become exposed to the wind and sun if the lake is lowered, creating a health hazard to those who recreate on the lake.

In 2005, a U.S. Geological Survey study found that most of the lead, cadmium and other pollution from heavy metals in Lake Roosevelt came from Teck Cominco's lead and zinc smelter, just north of the U.S.-Canadian border. The environmental groups say decades of pollution from the Canadian company's facility have left toxic metals on the banks and bottom of the lake behind the dam.

Other environmental issues are not raised in the lawsuit, but are just as important, said Rachael Paschal Osborn, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law & Policy in Spokane.

"The climate change issue is potentially a calamitous situation, with in-stream flows in the Columbia River expected to drop due to the loss of snowpack and the loss of glaciers," she said. "They are going to have a major impact over the course of the next century on the Columbia River. They will change the flows, and the timing of high water," she said.

By issuing new water rights, Osborn said, the state is risking the water in the river for fish, and for existing water users. She said the state's environmental analysis discusses climate change. "But they don't talk about what the climate scientists are talking about, and what the impacts are to the river. If there's less water in the summer, but we're making more commitments, who's going to feel the hit? There's going to be lower flows ... for salmon," she said.

The groups also say cumulative effects of new water storage proposals and other new water projects must also be considered in the analysis, along with the cost to taxpayers and ratepayers for expanding the Columbia Basin Project.

K.C. Mehaffey
Groups Sue Over Lake Drawdown
Wenatchee World, December 2, 2008

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