Environmental groups say bureau overlooked impacts of water withdrawal

By MATTHEW WEAVER

Capital Press

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will determine early next year whether the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials considered all possibilities before deciding to withdraw more water from the Columbia River.

The Center for Environmental Law and Policy and Columbia Riverkeeper filed an appeal July 20, arguing the bureau failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and consider the environmental impacts associated with the new water diversions.

The project will deliver additional water from Lake Roosevelt for drought relief, improved municipal and industrial supply and to replace some of the groundwater used in the Odessa Subarea.

It will also increase water flows in the Columbia River below Grand Coulee Dam.

Rachael Paschal Osborn, executive director of the center, said she is primarily concerned that the river is already at critically low levels.

She said all alternatives to the drawdown were not considered and that substantial amounts of slag and toxic materials are in the water.

Such factors were not considered in the bureau's environmental impact statement, Osborn said.

The bureau's final environmental statement finds contaminants are present, but the additional drawdown does not expose much additional sediment to erosion.

"Lake Roosevelt is an operating reservoir, it fluctuates, it goes up and down," Bill Gray, area manager of the bureau's Columbia Cascade office in Yakima, Wash, said. "This is all within that range of that reservoir the way it currently operates."

U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley in May found the bureau had complied with NEPA timing requirements and adequately considered alternatives to the project and its impacts.

In the meantime, construction continues, Gray said. The bureau is also working on contracts with the Washington State Department of Ecology and the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District to deliver water.

The first water will be available in March 2012, Gray said.

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