U.S. Water News Online
SPOKANE, Wash. -- The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to
hear an appeal of a lower court decision that the government can
close irrigation ditches crossing U.S. Forest Service land to provide
additional water to help endangered fish runs.
The Supreme Court, without comment, let stand a decision by the
9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that was a setback for groups
seeking to limit federal control over state waters.
"We consider this a great victory for protecting wild salmon,"
Michael Mayer, a lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice in
Irrigators argued that the Forest Service did not have the right
under the Endangered Species Act to deny long-standing water rights
to farmers. They claimed the state, and not the federal government,
had the authority to set in-stream flow requirements for fish.
"It does remain a very hotly contested issue across the Western
states," said Russ Brooks, managing attorney of the Pacific Legal
Center in Bellevue, Wash., which advocates for private property
rights and pursued the case on behalf of the Early Winters Ditch Co.,
Okanogan County and four irrigators.
The Supreme Court's decision ends this case, but, "I'm sure there
will be other opportunities to bring the issue before the court,"
Mayer said the case reaffirmed federal efforts to protect the
survival of salmon runs.
"We think this is a decision of huge importance, given the
resources involved and the amount of Forest Service land," Mayer
U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley of Spokane sided with the Forest
Service, which denied the use of irrigation ditches running through
the Okanogan National Forest to take water from area rivers.
Whaley ruled that flow rates are set so the Forest Service
complies with the Endangered Species Act, which is carried out by the
National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service. His decision was upheld by the 9th Circuit.
The 250-subscriber Methow Valley Irrigation District draws water
from the Methow and Twisp rivers in north-central Washington. The
federal government contended that operations by the district were
killing protected salmon and steelhead.
The dispute arose in 1990, when a state-commissioned study found
that the district's ditches, dug in 1919, were inefficient,
delivering one gallon of water to fields for every eight withdrawn
from the Twisp.
The Yakama Indian Nation sued the state in 1991 for allowing the
district to waste water. That led to a proposal to switch to a system
of wells and pressurized pipes.
The district initially agreed to the plan, then backed away,
saying it would be too costly to operate and would unfairly restrict
its water use.
The fisheries service sued the irrigation district in May 2000,
seeking to force it to replace the ditches with pressurized pipes and
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