Saving frogs, killing farms one lawsuit at a time

Central Oregon farmers and ranchers are endangered by a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Oregon spotted frog.

Published on December 31, 2015 9:05AM

Last changed on December 31, 2015 9:08AM

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

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Environmentalists have filed a lawsuit to save the Oregon spotted frog, and it could cost 4,600 farm families their livelihoods.

The Center for Biological Diversity is suing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Crane Prairie and Wickiup reservoirs. The reservoirs are an important water source for the 3,650 farmers and ranchers of the Central Oregon Irrigation District and nearly 1,000 more belonging to the North Unit Irrigation District.

The dams are nearly 100 years old, and have not wiped the frogs from that stretch of the river. Plaintiffs say that the frogs are only surviving on the margins of their natural habitat, and that they are further threatened by the current operations.

The lawsuit alleges the reservoirs have altered natural water flows in the Deschutes River to the point of interfering with the frog’s life cycle.

It alleges that the frog’s egg masses are flushed out when the water levels in the reservoirs rise rapidly. When water is later released from the reservoirs for irrigation, other egg masses along their margins are dried up.

River flows are reduced as water accumulates in the reservoirs, stranding adult and juvenile frogs on dry land. Their populations are isolated, resulting in in-breeding, the group claims.

Plaintiffs maintain that the bureau has violated the Endangered Species Act by operating the reservoirs in a harmful manner before it completes a required consultation about the effects on the frog.

Plaintiffs say that the government can deliver water to the irrigators, it just has to manage the operation of the reservoirs in a way that doesn’t harm the frogs.

And there’s the rub. If you accept the plaintiffs’ argument, more water would have to be stored in the reservoir during irrigation season, reducing the amount available for agriculture, and more water would need to pass through dams during the winter, decreasing storage levels.

“They can still deliver water to the irrigators, they just need to do it in a more careful way,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Capital Press. “They have to do things more gradually and at different times of the year.”

In other words, they can’t have as much as they need, and they can’t have what they can get when they need it.

The irrigation districts are not deaf to the plaintiffs’ cries. They want to take steps to save water and be less dependent on the reservoirs. But they say holding water back and reducing stream flows in the summer might in turn harm salmon and other endangered species in the river. More work for the environmental bar.

It seems to us the farmers and ranchers are in greater danger than the frogs.

The frogs have found a way to survive the ebb and flow as it has developed over the last century. Nature has found a way. But if you cut off their water, the farmers and the ranchers won’t fare as well.


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