Environmentalists claim that agricultural water diversions in an Idaho national forest are operating in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
A lawsuit filed by the Idaho Conservation League, a non-profit, accuses federal authorities of failing to analyze the effect of 100 water diversions on protected fish in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
“Nevertheless, the Forest Service continues to allow these diversions to be used, operated and maintained,” the complaint said. “And Chinook salmon, steelhead, bulltrout, and their habitat have been, are being, and will continue to be harmed by the Forest Service’s actions.”
Most of the diversions are used for crop irrigation and livestock watering by farmers who own water rights in streams within the national forest, said Bryan Hurlbutt, attorney for ICL.
A federal judge previously ordered the U.S. Forest Service to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service about impacts to species, but most of those studies were never completed, Hurlbutt said.
“Our concern is that without completing consultations, there might be a lot of old diversion structures out there harming fish,” he said.
In two cases where the agencies did finish their consultations, the conclusion was that diversions did jeopardize threatened and endangered fish, the complaint said.
The environmental group claims that diversions can block fish passage, reduce stream flows and raise water temperatures.
Diversions can also suck fish into ditches and canals, “trapping and stranding fish in inhospitable environments,” the complaint said.
The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief, but Hurlbutt said he wants the judge to order the agencies to finish consultations rather than shut down the diversions.
If the diversions are found to jeopardize fish, federal authorities can require growers to upgrade the structures, he said.
For example, the diversions can incorporate screens to prevent fish from flowing into irrigation canals, Hurlbutt said.
Farmers can also be required to install measuring devices that ensure they don’t divert more water than is allowed by their water rights, he said.
Such measurements are already required by Idaho law, but authorities haven’t sufficiently validated that the devices were installed, said Hurlbutt.
“It’s not something new and radical,” he said. “It’s supposed to be happening anyway.”