An environmentalist lawsuit threatens to complicate a planned boost in the amount of irrigation water diverted from behind 13 dams in Oregon’s Willamette River Basin.
The legal challenge marks the latest snag in a process of allocating water from the flood control reservoirs that’s dragged on for about 30 years.
If the lawsuit succeeds in creating additional delays and difficulties, it’s hard to see how Willamette Valley farmers will ever access more of the stored water, said Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau.
The Farm Bureau was already concerned about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal, arguing it dedicates insufficient water for the future needs of agriculture.
“We’re not happy about it, either,” Cooper said. “We want the ag bucket to grow.”
Under a proposal that Congress is expected to vote on this year, the federal agency would devote up to 327,650 acre-feet of water to agriculture from the 1.6 million acre-feet that can be stored behind the dams.
That’s a considerable increase from the 74,000 acre-feet that farmers are currently contracted to use, but substantially lower than the 450,000 acre-feet sought by the Farm Bureau.
Another 159,750 acre-feet would be allocated for municipal and industrial uses, while more than 1.1 million acre-feet would go to fish and wildlife habitat.
The complaint filed by Waterwatch of Oregon, Northwest Environmental Defense Center and Wildearth Guardian argues the federal government’s allocation plan should be blocked for violating the Endangered Species Act.
Rather than only studying the effects of divvying up the water on threatened salmon and steelhead, the agency should have analyzed the allocation in the entire context of impacts from Willamette River Flood Control Project dams, the plaintiffs claim.
A “consultation” over the effect of dams on protected species is already underway among federal agencies, but the allocation plan would prejudice that process and foreclose the possibility of more water being dedicated to fish, the complaint said.
“The reallocation plan will tie the Corps’ hands and limit the agencies’ ability to develop reasonable and prudent alternative measures that may be necessary to protect those fish species from the impacts of the Project, which will, in turn, further jeopardize their existence,” the complaint said.
The plaintiffs have asked a federal judge to stop the agency from submitting a report containing those recommendations to Congress for approval, as well as reimbursement of the environmental groups’ litigation expenses.
Congress initially asked the Army Corps to examine water allocations in the Willamette basin in 1988, which led to a more extensive feasibility study.
However, that study was halted after salmon and steelhead in the river were listed as threatened in 2000 and only re-started in 2015, ultimately leading to the agency’s current proposal.
Aside from being disappointed with the amount of water devoted to agriculture, the Farm Bureau is also worried about the treatment of existing irrigators who rely on water from behind the dams.
The concern is that longtime irrigators won’t be given any more water assurances than newer users, potentially leading to a “free-for-all down the road,” said Cooper, the group’s vice president of public policy.
Another “biological opinion” would also be required to withdraw more than 95,000 acre-feet for irrigation from the reservoirs, which would be a major obstacle to accessing the full 327,650 acre-feet theoretically permitted, she said.
“We have no idea whether we’d ever get more,” Cooper said.