Legal challenge to ‘water spreading’ in Columbia and Snake River Basins

Fishermen and conservationists have mounted a legal challenge to stop the US Bureau of Reclamation diverting irrigation water to unauthorised farmers in the Columbia and Snake River basins.

The groups say the practice of delivering irrigation water from federal water projects to unauthorised users, known as ‘water spreading’, is putting extra strain on the rivers’ ecosystems and salmon population.

Conservationists consider the Lower Snake River to be one of the most threatened in the US and are already seeking the removal of four dams in order to protect salmon and steelhead populations (see related story).

Federal agencies have long identified water spreading as a major threat to salmon, but the problem has never been addressed, the conservationists say. ” The biggest threat facing salmon comes from the Government’s continuing practice of identifying measures to protect and restore listed salmon but then failing to actually implement those measures,”said Todd True, senior attorney at Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which is representing the conservationists.

In 1995, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) ordered the US Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies to increase the amount of water devoted to flow augmentation in the Snake and Columbia rivers so that flows are sufficient for migrating salmon.

Every year since 1995, however, flows have fallen short of levels needed by the fish, even though recent years have seen above-average rainfall. Water

spreading, by removing water from rivers and tributaries in the basin, contributes to these low flows.

A 1994 Department of Interior report estimated that water spreading from just a handful of Columbia basin projects operated by the Bureau removed almost 300,000 acre-feet (370,047,000m3) annually from the river system, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to the federal treasury.

The report named specific water projects in the Snake Basin where water spreading occurs, and estimated that the Bureau delivered about 85,000 acre-feet (104,846,650 m3) of water to illegal users from just six of 11 projects there.

The problem is particularly acute in the Snake River basin, where flow augmentation to push migrating salmon past the four lower Snake River dams remains highly controversial.

“The four lower Snake River dams turn the river into warm, slack-water reservoirs. More fast, cold water is needed now to help the fish survive their trip around the dams,” explained Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund attorney Jan Hasselman. “Stopping illegal irrigation in the basin is one step we can take now towards achieving

these higher flows.”

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