U.S. Water News Online
PORTLAND, Ore. -- In an effort to protect Columbia River flows for endangered wild salmon and grassland habitat for other declining wildlife, three conservation organizations have joined together to challenge the withdrawal of up to 144,000 acre feet of Columbia River water.
Oregon Trout, WaterWatch of Oregon, and Northwest Environmental Defense Center filed suit in Marion Circuit Court April 10, challenging the proposed development by Boeing Agri-Industrial Company of irrigated farmland along the Columbia River near Boardman, Oregon. Boeing Agri-Industrial is a subsidiary of the Boeing Company.
The suit is a joint complaint filed against Boeing Agri-Industrial and the Oregon Water Resources Department.
"The state of Oregon is suffering from schizophrenia," said Jim Myron, Oregon Trout's conservation director. "We have spent over $1 billion over the last 15 years attempting to restore native salmon to the Columbia Basin. Now the state plans to give away up to 144,000 acre feet of water to irrigate 32,000 acres of arid shrub steppe grassland without regard to the effects on salmon," Myron said.
In 1900, Columbia River salmon exceeded 16 million returning adults, according to Oregon Trout. But in 1996, fewer than 100,000 native salmon (one percent of the historical run) are expected to return to their home rivers.
The suit alleges that the State of Oregon violated its own law when it issued extensions of time, beginning in the 1970s, for Boeing to develop the irrigated land under its permits. All of the permits had already been extended -- some up to five times and up to five years at a time.
Oregon law allows for only one extension for a water use permit. It also requires that construction of diversion and irrigation facilities be completed within five years of the date the permit was issued.
According to WaterWatch, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) has been purchasing and leasing nearly a half million acre-feet of water each year to augment flows for salmon in the lower Snake River, as required under the federal Endangered Species Act. In a January letter to the Water Resources Department, John W. Keys, the BuRec regional director in Boise, expressed his concern over the Boeing permit extensions.
"A perception that new water development downstream was occurring while upstream irrigation lands are taken out of production would prove very detrimental to Reclamation's efforts," Keys wrote.
The planned irrigation project also threatens to destroy critical wildlife habitat, according to WaterWatch. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife names the Boeing tract and an adjacent Navy training facility as "the only large contiguous area of Columbia Basin shrub-steppe grassland left in Oregon."
This public land, WaterWatch said, provides important habitat for migratory birds and waterfowl, big game, and five species on Oregon's "sensitive" species list.
"The states have given away to private individuals, free of charge, nearly all the water of the American West," said Geoff Pampush, Executive Director of Oregon Trout. "Now in the late 20th century, with Columbia Basin salmon edging toward extinction, the State of Oregon is once again giving away more water than the city of Portland uses -- to grow potatoes in the desert.
"If we are going to enjoy the benefits of fisheries and vital rivers," Pampush said, "we have to be able to say, 'Enough.'"
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