River News for the Week of January 12, 2001
TRINITY RIVER: Westlands Water District, which supplies water to more than half a million acres of some of the world's richest farmland in California, has sued to halt a recent decision by U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to increase flows to Northern California's Trinity River. Claiming diminished supplies for power users and farmers, the district says that Babbitt's decision will lead to a reduction in deliveries of enough water to irrigate 23,000 acres and will cost 380 farm jobs. Babbitt's decision allows the river to retain nearly half of its natural flow, leaving more water in the Trinity for fish and habitat, and has the support of salmon fishing Indian tribes and Trinity County officials eager to boost tourism, says the Los Angeles Times (01/09/01). Nearly 90% of the river was taken in the 1960s and 1970s, according to the Fresno Bee (01/09/01). A hearing on an injunction for the restoration plan is scheduled for Feb. 5 before Judge Oliver W. Wanger.
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EAST WALKER RIVER: The East Walker River in California was the unhappy recipient of about 3,500 gallons of topped crude oil when a semi truck overturned Dec. 30 on California Route 182. Officials say the oil has made its way from the crash site to near the Nevada line, about five miles downstream, according to the AP (01/08/01). Cleanup of the popular trout fishing river could take weeks or months, and though only about 12 trout have been found dead so far, California Highway Patrol Sgt. Sean Patton says it's too early to determine the long-term impact on wildlife.
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WHITE RIVER: The state of Indiana will be seeking at least $1.3 million for the White River fish kill from Guide Corp., an Anderson automotive parts plant, and Crown Environmental Group, its Ohio-based consultant. That amount would cover only the estimated value of nearly 5 million fish wiped out by industrial pollution, says the Indianapolis Star (01/08/01). The firms are both accused of playing a part in discharging toxic chemicals through the Anderson sewage treatment plant that contaminated the river, a major source of drinking water for central Indiana. Following the spill, fish were wiped out in a 55-mile stretch of the river in three counties but the spill seemed to cause no health problems for people. The value of fish is determined by the American Fisheries Society, a professional group of fisheries scientists, which sets a value for fish by species and size in various areas of the country based on surveys of fish hatcheries. As reports the Star, "the challenge for the experts in this case -- and this litigation -- is determining how many of each species were wiped out and the size of each." Dead fish have been hand-collected since the spill, resulting in a total weight of 117 tons. However, the state has increased the total weight to 187 tons because scientists say some rotting fish were lost to scavengers.
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WEST COAST SALMON: New federal regulations enforced by the National Marine Fisheries Service went into effect this week to protect salmon threatened with extinction on the West Coast. The new regulations expand rules already in place that make it illegal for individuals, businesses or local and state governments to kill or harm salmon or destroy important habitat. As reports the AP (01/08/01), Puget Sound chinook and 13 other West Coast salmon and steelhead populations were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act nearly two years ago due to harm caused by development, logging, dams, overfishing and other habitat changes. Violators of the regulations face fines up to $20,000. One of the regulations allows any third party who believes salmon are being harmed to sue the alleged violators. Of concern to businesses are increased lawsuits and accompanying costs. The complete list of threatened runs includes Puget Sound chinook, lower Columbia River chinook, Lake Ozette sockeye, Hood Canal summer chum, lower Columbia chum, mid-Columbia steelhead, upper Willamette River chinook and steelhead, and Lake Ozette sockeye. Upper Columbia spring Chinook are listed as endangered.
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SOUTHEAST HYDROPOWER: River conservation groups across the Southeast are on full alert as a little-known federal agency held a public hearing in Atlanta this week to consider changing the way the government regulates private hydropower dams on public rivers. The health of rivers all across the region -- including the Coosa River (AL), the Chattahoochee River (GA, AL), the Nantahala River (NC), and the Catawba-Wateree River system (NC, SC) -- will be impacted by the outcome of this hearing. At the direction of Senator Frank Murkowski (R-AK) and at the behest of the electric utility industry, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is holding the meeting to determine ways to "reduce the cost and time of obtaining a (hydropower dam) license." Alabama Rivers Alliance, American Rivers, and Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper expressed concern that these hearings are just the latest in a long line of efforts by powerful utilities and their lobbyists to escape the obligations that come with the use of public rivers. Following on the heels of last year's legislative efforts by Senator Larry Craig (R-ID), the conservation community is pessimistic about the intent of these hearings, which appears to be an extension of industry efforts to roll back long-term environmental protections under the cover of a short-term energy problem. (Alabama Rivers Alliance, American Rivers and Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper release 01/09/01).
In the Northwest, operators and river users are also clashing over dam relicensing plans. "Some river use groups contend the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission meetings are part of an effort to limit public and environmental scrutiny of the dams," says the AP (01/10/01). The hydropower industry claims the licensing process, which takes eight to 10 years or more, is too costly (an annual cost of $1 million), time-consuming and unpredictable. Between now and 2010, about 220 dams will go through that process nationwide, including the three dams of Hells Canyon, which have no fish ladders and block chinook salmon from reaching 80 percent of their Snake River habitat, and the six dams on the Spokane River. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, has drawn up legislation that would limit the time agencies can spend reviewing license applications, which would effectively kill environmental review of dams by federal agencies, says Matt Sicchio of American Rivers.
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WASHINGTON STATE WATERS: Washington State Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher this week released a reports that says the rivers, lakes and bays of Washington state are badly polluted, and Puget Sound in particular shows early signs of catastrophic decline. As reports the AP (01/07/01), the report "Changing Our Water Ways" highlights patterns of decline attributed partly to the state's growing population, now more than 5.8 million. Some findings from the report include: 1. A quarter of the state's watersheds can't meet the water needs of people and fish; 2. Hundreds of lakes and streams are partly or completely closed to further granting of water rights, but population continues to grow; 3. Scientists last year identified 38 drinking-water sources in the state contaminated by chemicals from agriculture or industry. About 25,000 people had to boil their drinking water at some point last year to kill microbial contamination; 4. Widespread replacement of natural shorelines by seawalls is reducing the number of places where small fish, at the base of the food chain, can thrive, and; 5. Washington's 1,025 dams restrict movement of nutrients and sediments previously carried seaward. One result: Sand once carried by the Columbia River to replenish beaches is held back, leading to faster-than-normal erosion at Aberdeen and Ocean Shores, 70 miles away.
Betcher's solution to the problems includes "designating aquatic reserves that deserve special protection; purchasing or leasing water rights so enough water remains in streams to sustain fish populations; removal of some dams; and cleanup of contaminated sediments."
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CHEYENNE RIVER: A warning has been posted within the boundaries of the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota cautioning people to limit their consumption of fish in the area due to higher than normal mercury levels found in the fish. The warning includes the Cheyenne and Moreau rivers and parts of Lake Oahe with shorelines on the reservation, says the AP (01/11/01). Though mercury can come from a number of sources, it is possible for it to occur naturally as well. To reduce the risk of harm, people are advised to eat smaller fish of 4 pounds or less, and younger fish which have received less exposure.
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COEUR D'ALENE RIVER: Logging is a primary culprit in the degradation of the Coeur d'Alene River in Idaho, reports the Idaho Statesman (01/11/01). Despite a major reduction in the area's timber production, its effects are still being felt today since many of the hundreds of miles of roads that were built during the logging industry's heyday are now beginning to collapse - especially at stream crossing in the Panhandle Forest. The Forest Service has recently been focusing on the problem, and this year finished one of its most extensive stream projects to date by reconstructing more than a mile of Tepee Creek, a major tributary to the North Fork. Its next project will remove more than 19 miles of roads and 42 stream crossings in the headwaters of Brett Creek, another tributary of the North Fork. To help Brett Creek recover from past devastating fires, it is necessary to remove the aging logging roads, some of which are already failing. If the roads are not removed, the stream crossings will wash away, sending heavy amounts of sediment into the stream. The project is expected to cost between $100,000 and $200,000, and includes plans to remove some of the road material from the stream channel, replacing it with large stable structures, including rocks and tree branches that will provide cover for fish and other aquatic species.
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COLORADO RIVER: Raw sewage from a house owned by a water user's association is draining into a section of the Colorado River that provides drinking water for 30,000 people, say the AP (01/11/01). The sewage is not thought to pose a health threat because of the utility's purification process, but officials are surprised to learn of the problem, which might have existed for decades. The dwelling is a care-takers house, and is on property owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation eight miles northeast of Palisade on a section of the river has been designated a critical fish habitat under the federal Endangered Species Act.
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NW SALMON: The environmental group Washington Trout this week led eight other groups in informing Puget Sound Energy that they would sue under the Endangered Species Act if the utility once more strands protected fish or their eggs. As reports the Seattle Post Intelligencer (01/08/01), the groups accuse the utility of repeatedly stranding salmon and their eggs without water despite warnings from government biologists. Puget Sound Energy blames weather, federal policies and actions by other utilities for the incidents.
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