Fisheries threatened with suit

Irrigators want water policy firmed up with federal agencies in Okanogan County

Wednesday, February 7, 2001


OKANOGAN -- The Okanogan County Commission and a coalition of irrigators said yesterday that they will sue the National Marine Fisheries Service and other federal agencies over water policies and the Endangered Species Act.

A coalition of county officials, farmers and ranchers filed a notice that gives the federal fisheries agency 60 days to negotiate an acceptable water policy in the Methow Valley and other drainages.

"We have tried to reach a reasonable agreement over water use, but it has become clear that the federal government doesn't want to be reasonable, and we've been forced to take this action," Commissioner Craig Vejraska said.

The threatened legal action comes after more than two years of negotiations with the fisheries agency over how much potential irrigation water must be left in streams to accommodate salmon and steelhead species that are threatened or endangered, Vejraska said.

"For two years, the instream flows have been a moving target," he said. "Whenever we thought we had an agreement, they upped the ante or changed direction. We're hopeful this 60-day notice will bring them to the table in earnest."

"Fish need water. Farmers need water. Unfortunately, they tend to need it at the same time," NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman said.

"We have generally been successful in the past in convincing irrigators to be judicious in their use of water," Gorman said. "It's going to be tough this year because we don't have a lot of water."

Gorman said the law "is pretty clear" when it comes to the Endangered Species Act.

Vejraska and Okanogan County Planning Director Rusty Bonser contend that the fisheries agency chose their county to test a theory that the Endangered Species Act has precedent over state water rights and the state's water resource management.

"This is a real bear of an issue. It has not really ever been fully resolved," Gorman said. "Water issues in the West are filled with contradiction and contention."

The fisheries agency has sought to force several Methow Valley irrigation districts to switch from old, unlined and leaking canals to pressurized pipeline systems in order to make more water available for fish. Methow Valley farmers are having difficulty obtaining crop loans, Bonser said, because banks are uncertain whether enough irrigation water will be available.

A NMFS biological opinion forbids water withdrawals if stream flows fall below "pre-civilization" levels, Bonser said.

"That means farmers couldn't irrigate in at least five out of every 10 years," Bonser said. "This standard is impossible, and they know it."

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