Irrigators to sue over fish

Wednesday, July 16th, 2003

By Chris Mulick Tri-City Herald Olympia bureau

Eastern Washington - Two prominent irrigator associations on Tuesday filed official notice they intend to sue a series of federal agencies over their plan to ensure fish recovery in the Columbia Basin.

The 2000 biological opinion drafted by the National Marine Fisheries Service -- now known as NOAA Fisheries -- already has been ruled legally deficient after a series of environmental groups sued after the plan was written.

U.S. District Judge James Redden ruled in May that the plan included remedies to comply with the Endangered Species Act that are not certain enough to be implemented.

He has given NOAA Fisheries a year to write a new plan. A status conference is scheduled next week to discuss schedules and the range of issues to be addressed in the new plan.

Darryll Olsen, a consultant for the Columbia-Snake River and Eastern Oregon irrigators associations hope the agency will address their concerns as well. They contend the biological opinion gives too much weight to the impacts of hydroelectric dams on fish mortality and does not adequately consider other factors such as ocean conditions.

"All of the responsibility for survival is placed on the hydro system," Olsen said. "The hydro system isn't getting credit for the empirical reality of increases in survival."

He said the plan exaggerated risks to fish and that the plentiful salmon runs in recent years should be considered as it is rewritten. The associations on Tuesday filed the required 60-day notice they plan to sue over their concerns.

Brian Gorman, an NOAA Fisheries spokesman, questioned why the irrigators would file a lawsuit to press their concerns and said there already will be a time crunch to revise the biological opinion without additional issues arising.

"The judge made it quite clear he doesn't want any side issues raised," Gorman said. "If we start getting diverted ..., then we'll never finish the job. This is exactly the kind of diversion the judge is guarding against."

Rob Masonis, Northwest regional director for American Rivers, hadn't seen the irrigators' letter but said the court needs to focus on changes Redden demanded. Criticisms included that the plan improperly relies on nonfederal entities, including states and tribes, to carry out remedies designed to maintain compliance with the Endangered Species Act.

"The flaws we pointed out, they need to be addressed," Masonis said.

But Olsen said the irrigators' timing couldn't be better.

"We're coming in at the right time," Olsen said.


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