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NFC: Fw: River Currents: June 29, 2001

Title: River Currents: June 29, 2001
RiverCurrents:  June 29, 2001
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In the news this week...

-- The energy crisis in the west
-- Pressurized pipes help salmon and farmers

-- Dodging ESA obligations?

-- Decades of damaged commercial and recreational fishing

-- Remove the dam but save the water

-- Don't move that river...

-- No net loss?? Who knows..

-- Farming for dollars

-- Restoring flows to save endangered species



1) Salmon and the energy crisis
The Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition (SOS) this week joined with other public interest and environmental groups to protest the Bush Administration's proposed energy policy outside of a Department of Energy (DoE) public hearing in Washington, DC. The groups set out to draw attention to the flaws in Bush's energy plan, especially lowering investments in clean, renewable energy technologies by as much as fifty percent. This year in particular has been devastating for Northwest salmon: due to the energy crunch and drought, federal agencies have unilaterally suspended the federal salmon recovery plan just adopted in December, and are running federal dams almost exclusively for energy production.  The president's plan would allow such suspensions to continue occurring in future years. The Bonneville Power Administration's river operations plan right now is an example of the Bush energy plan at work, and the philosophy that underscores it:  no holds barred energy production at the expense of the environment, in this case endangered salmon.

Save our Wild Salmon believes that the cheapest, most reliable and highest job-generating energy strategy for the Northwest is also the best for salmon.  An energy policy based on these principles could strike an equitable balance between energy needs and the needs of salmon and the communities that rely on them.  In fact, the recently adopted federal plan to restore endangered salmon in the Columbia and Snake Rivers, though far from perfect, requires a reduction in energy production from federal dams on both rivers. Nowhere has the over-reliance on hydroelectric dams proven to be more costly than in the lower Snake River.  Since the construction of four dams on the lower Snake, wild salmon populations have plummeted by nearly 90 percent.  Every species of Snake River salmon is on the Endangered Species list. 

Communities have also suffered: salmon declines have already cost the Northwest thousands jobs since 1991, thousands more would vanish with extinction, and the United States would be liable for abrogating our treaties with Indian tribes. (American Rivers press release 6/26/01)

2) Pressurized pipes help salmon and farmers

The state of Washington has made an agreement with the Methow Valley Irrigation District in an effort to save salmon, steelhead and bull trout listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, while saving water for small farmers at the same time. As reports ENN.com (6/26/01), the agreement calls for the replacement of leaky irrigation laterals with pressurized pipes beginning this irrigation season. Serving between 800 and 1,000 irrigable acres in the upper half of the Methow Valley in north central Washington, the new pressurized pipes will save millions of gallons of water and will greatly improve conditions in the Methow and Twisp rivers, says Linda Hermeston, Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) project manager. The project will be funded by federal and state money earmarked for salmon restoration, with BPA paying about $475,000. The state Department of Ecology will contribute $142,500 to the project.

Historically, some irrigators have been reluctant to convert to wells and pipes, fearing more scrutiny by the state Department of Ecology - possibly leading to more battles over the amount of water an irrigator has rights to, said Dick Ewing, head of a water planning group in the Methow.

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3) Dodging ESA obligations on the Missouri River

Basking in accolades for protecting citizen enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, the House of Representatives now seems prepared to backslide - acting to prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from meeting its ESA obligations. Earlier this week, the House Appropriations Committee approved language introduced by Iowa Representative Tom Latham (R-5th) to block the Corps from preparing a new plan for operating six dams on the Missouri River that are driving three species of wildlife towards extinction and costing the region billions of dollars in lost recreational and tourism opportunities. Representative Latham inserted the legislative language - known as a "rider" -- into the FY 2002 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act on behalf of the heavily subsidized commercial shipping industry that transports a tiny amount of cargo on the river between St. Louis and Sioux City. Following expected approval on the House floor, the issue will come to a head when the House and Senate meet to reconcile their different versions of the bill.

The politically well-connected barge industry wants to stop the Corps from implementing recommendations made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that would briefly interrupt commercial navigation in late summer most years. The Service's biological opinion, released last summer, called on the Corps to release more water from its dams in the spring and reduce flows in the summer to prevent the extinction of the pallid sturgeon, interior least tern, and piping plover. Representative Latham's rider would prevent the Corps from meeting this obligation by not authorizing the agency to spend money to complete or hold public hearings on its plan to comply with its ESA requirements.

More natural flow patterns would improve habitat conditions in the river for the endangered species and also improve the river's appeal as a recreational destination. Even in its impaired condition, the river generates nearly $90 million in economic benefits from recreation and tourism. The barge industry, in contrast, generates just $6.9 million in economic returns - less than the federal outlays for maintaining the shipping canal. Despite industry claims to the contrary, Corps studies indicate that mimicking natural flows would not interfere with floodplain agriculture or increase flood losses. (American Rivers press release 6/26/01)

River Policy Update

From Capitol Hill: the latest on energy policy, appropriations, and

4)  Decades of damaged commercial and recreational fishing on the Hudson River

A report released this week by the state of New York says that contamination of the Hudson River by PCBs released by General Electric damaged commercial and recreational fishing for decades. Though the report doesn't say anything new, it does represent "the first major step in an attempt by the government to build a case against GE for damages beyond the actual pollution of the waterway," reports the Albany Times Union (6/22/01). The state is involved in a still-developing study that could result in General Electric paying for restoration and cleanup of the river - potentially being charged even more than the $460 million proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to dredge the river. The study is being completed by representatives of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation in an effort to "measure public and private damage caused by PCB contamination of fish, mammals and birds, and come up with a legal claim for cost recovery."

5)  Remove Milltown dam on the Clark Fork River but save the water

Missoula (MT) City Council members this week said that removing Milltown Dam and the poisonous sediments in its reservoir should be done only if the work maximizes protection of Missoula's drinking water. As reports the Missoulian (6/26/01), "if something goes wrong, Missoula will expect either the federal government or the mining company responsible for the cleanup to provide it with a new - purified - source of tap water," says the council. All 11 council members voted for the resolution that puts the city's priority on safeguarding the underground aquifer that is Missoula's sole source of clean drinking water for 60,000 people --  as opposed to placing the priority on dam safety or on the effects on fish and the Clark Fork River. With passage of the resolution, British Petroleum, Montana Power Co., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the state of Montana and other responsible parties are charged with developing the "most effective and safest method for removing the dam and the contaminants behind Milltown Dam," and with performing "all appropriate modeling, monitoring and testing to identify a remedy that maximizes protection of the greater Missoula area and its potable drinking water supply which serves the Missoula community."

Milltown reservoir holds an estimated 6.6 million cubic yards of sediments contaminated by the mining and smelting of copper 120 miles upstream.

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6) Leaving the Bitterroot River in place

The trial of two men each facing four charges of violating the federal Clean Water Act and one charge of conspiracy began this week in U.S. District Court in Missoula. The men are accused of discharging dredge, fill material and pollutants, including sediment, into the Bitterroot River in Montana upstream, as well as causing the river to change direction by scraping the river bottom, building berms, and placing rock riprap in the main channel of the river. The work was completed without the necessary permit or in violation of a permit. The men insist, however, that an emergency forced them to divert the river, reports the Missoulian (6/26/01). Apparently, the river was some 100 yards from the property of one of the men when the foundation for his house was laid. With the house still under construction today, the river is just 25 yards away. The man believes that the floodplain permit gave him permission to redirect the river.

7) No net loss of wetlands? Who knows...

The National Academy of Sciences has released a report stating that the federal government fails to enforce laws requiring developers who fill in wetlands to restore old ones or create new ones in return. As reports the San Francisco Chronicle Online (6/26/01), the Academy found that they are unable to determine if the nation's goal of "no net loss" of wetlands is being met, since no federal agencies are tracking the nation's marshes, swamps and bogs accurately to ensure that losses to development each year are adequately compensated. From 1993 to 2000, developers have been directed to replace every acre of wetlands destroyed with an average of 1.78 acres of similar habitat - meaning that more than 42,000 acres of wetlands should have been added to compensate for the destruction of 24,000 wetland acres since 1993. However, the Academy has not been able to determine if that has been accomplished.

As reports the National Wildlife Federation (6/26/01) "the report demonstrates that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the agency charged with principal responsibility for protecting the nation's wetlands) and other federal and state agencies are misguided in their belief that wetlands replacement programs imposed on developers are sufficient to ensure that no net loss of wetlands occur."

The Academy has recommended that the US Corps of Engineers create a database to track losses and gains in wetlands, and that developers be required to join with conservation groups, like the Nature Conservancy, which could hold easement or title to the site.

8) Farming for dollars

The USDA has made available $30 million to the Soil and Water Conservation Assistance Program and the Agricultural Management Assistance Program, both of which provide financial assistance to farmers that employ voluntary conservation measures on their land. Greenwire (6/27/01) reports that the Soil and Water Conservation Assistance Program will receive $20 million to provide cost-share and incentive payments to farmers and ranchers to address threats to soil, water and other natural resources, and the Agricultural Management Assistance Program will receive $10 million to provide cost-share assistance to farmers who take measures to improve water quality and ease the risk of crop failure by implementing resource conservation.

9) Restoring flows to save endangered species on the Walla Walla river

A coalition of Northwest conservation groups expressed qualified support for a settlement agreement announced this week between the US Fish & Wildlife Service and irrigators on the Walla Walla River of eastern Oregon and Washington. Three irrigation districts have pledged to keep a minimum water flow in the river to protect bull trout, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Throughout the20th century, irrigation diversions completely dried up the Walla Walla at the town of Milton-Freewater, Oregon. When the districts began taking water from the river in the early summer, the Walla Walla would dry up quickly and completely, leaving many fish stranded in pools. Fish biologists from the State of Oregon and the Umatilla Tribes conducted extensive rescue operations to save some fish.

The irrigation districts' water use became an Endangered Species Act issue once bull trout and steelhead were listed in 1998 as threatened species in the Walla Walla River. Federal agencies and conservation groups considered lawsuits against the districts to enforce the law. But the Fish and Wildlife Service and the districts, supported by the conservation groups, reached an agreement last year to leave a minimum flow in the river to protect bull trout. This year's agreement provides additional flow improvements in 2001 and 2002.

Under the agreement, the irrigators will leave at least 18 cubic feet per second in the river this year and 25 cfs next irrigation season at Milton-Freewater, and will further reduce river fluctuations caused by their operations to prevent the stranding of fish. In addition, the irrigators have guaranteed to leave these flows in the river permanently.  (18 cfs is equal to 11.6 million gallons per day, nearly one-tenth of daily water consumption in the Seattle metro area.)  Walla Walla flow needs are still being studied, but a 1973 report by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife recommended a minimum of 50 cfs.

The Walla Walla is an interstate river that originates in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon and runs north into Washington to its confluence with the Columbia River between Ice Harbor and McNary dams. Two of the irrigation districts that signed the agreement divert water in Oregon (Hudson Bay District Improvement Company and Walla Walla River Irrigation District), and the third (Gardena Farms Irrigation District #13) is located in Washington, above the City of Walla Walla.

Seven conservation and fishing groups --American Rivers, the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, Friends of the Earth, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Trout Unlimited, Washington Environmental Council, and WaterWatch of Oregon--compose the coalition. The groups have been receiving pro bono legal advice from the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.  The groups sent a letter to the irrigators and the Fish & Wildlife Service on June 27, expressing qualified support for the agreement for the 2001 irrigation season, but raising concerns they would like to see addressed in order to assess the agreement for 2002.

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