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Fish Advocates Sue Over Water Flows

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, February 23, 2000

In a move designed to swing Idaho solidly for breaching the four Lower Snake River dams, a coalition of conservation and fishermen's groups on Tuesday sued federal agencies for alleged failure to keep enough water for fish in the Snake and Columbia rivers.

"Idaho has to make a choice here," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "They either have to acknowledge that the dams have to go or essentially dry up a good portion of Idaho agriculture.

"They should be advocating for removal of these dams."

The other choice presented by the environmental groups is giving up more than 1 million acre-feet of water a year from reservoirs that service southern Idaho farms. It's estimated 1 million acre-feet less water on Idaho farms would dry up between 7 percent and 21 percent of Idaho's irrigated land, Spain said.

Environmental groups contend the additional water is needed to make the rivers run more naturally, benefiting juvenile fish by pushing them downstream faster and cooling slow-moving reservoirs behind the dams.

Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance in Portland, said there's little evidence more water in the Snake generates more fish. But, he added, "This message really does fuel the paranoia of southern Idaho irrigators."

A Bureau of Reclamation study in the late 1990s showed 1 million acre-feet less water for Idaho farms would cost between 2,500 and 6,500 jobs and remove up to 643,000 acres from production in dry years.

Flow augmentation is a controversial measure used to make the impounded lower Snake River run more like a natural river. Each year, the federal agencies releasemillions of acre-feet through the Columbia River system to speed up and cool down reservoirs. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre 12 inches deep.

"The main problem is, we don't get the fish through the system fast enough," Spain said, charging that the government is not meeting "most" of its own flow targets. Removing the lower Snake dams would mean a lower, faster river and probably solve the problem, Spain argued. However, opponents of that option have pointed out environmental concerns raised by breaching.

In recent years, Idaho has agreed to let 427,000 acre-feet of water from the southern part of the state be used to flush fish to the ocean. But many Idaho politicians have lined up against letting the government have any more water.

And a contingent of irrigation analysts says flow augmentation water, or higher river flows, is wasted - that studies to date show little or no relationship between flow augmentation and fish survival.

"The National Marine Fisheries Service has a pretty easy defense against these guys," Lovelin said.

NMFS' spokesman, Brian Gorman, said he could not comment on pending litigation but that the agency is reviewing flow augmentation in its river operations plan, which is due in a few months. The Bureau of Reclamation, another defendant named in the suit, told The Associated Press it has met its obligations to boost flows by 427,000 acre-feet by buying water from willing sellers.

Jan Hasselman, with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Seattle, said conservation groups did not wait for NMFS' upcoming river operations plan because they don't trust the agency to make changes quickly enough.

"A big problem with the whole scenario is the history of delay," he said. "They continually say, 'We will solve the problem in the future,' and it's not happening."

Tuesday's suit, filed in federal district court in Portland, joins a handful of others over protection of Northwest salmon and steelhead.

Last March, a coalition of conservation and environmental groups sued federal agencies ,alleging violations of the Clean Water Act. The groups claimed the lower Snake River dams were causing the waterway to get too hot and filled with dissolved atmospheric gases from the dams' spillways for federally protected fish. It's argued by some that breaching the lower Snake dams is the only way to meet federal clean water obligations.

The judge in that case is considering motions made last week, and a ruling on what parts of the case will go forward is expected in the next two months, Spain said.

"Everybody is getting their day in court," he said.

Mike Lee
Fish Advocates Sue Over Water Flows
Tri-City Herald, February 23, 2000

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