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Irrigation Endangering Salmon Fisheries Agency Limits Diversions For Farming

Sat., May 17, 1997

The National Marine Fisheries Service in Portland has issued a determination that water diversions from the Columbia River, primarily for farm development, jeopardize survival of endangered salmon, according to conservation groups.

Brian Brown of the fisheries service said the agency was in consultations on the issue and was uncertain that a formal biological opinion had been issued.

But Karen Russell of WaterWatch of Oregon said the opinion was issued Friday and allows new diversions only under limited conditions. It also directs the Corps of Engineers to explore methods of restoring streamflows in the Columbia, including the possible revocation of existing diversion permits.

“For years, we’ve been telling the state and federal authorities that fish need water,” Russell said in a statement. “Biologists have said this in report after report, but the divisions have continued. it’s about time that someone look at the cumulative impact of taking so much water from the system.”

A recently completed Bureau of Reclamation study found that during dry years, diversions take 40 percent of the average natural flow at McNary Dam during irrigation system, which essentially coincides with salmon migration. It said that targeted summer flows for salmon would be met 74 percent of the time without irrigation diversion. The diversions slash that to 26 percent of the time.

The decision was prompted by a petition to divert 300 cubic feet per second from the river to irrigate potatoes and other crops on 30,000 acres of grassland west of Boardman, Ore. Although the land is state-owned, it is held by Boeing Agri-Industrial Co. under a long-term lease.

Russell and other conservationists have challenged in court and before the state Water Resources Department the permit application for the intake facility needed for the diversion on grounds that it conflicts with regional efforts to restore Northwest salmon runs. They also claim that Boeing’s water permits dating to 1973 are invalid because they have were illegally extended beyond the 10-year limit set by Oregon law.

Those challenges are still pending, but Russell said the marine fisheries service opinion makes it doubtful that the diversion will take place since it would likely reduce mainstem Columbia flows below levels targeted for salmon survival during the fish migration.

Idaho Gov. Phil Batt has also vigorously objected to the diversion, contending it is disingenuous for Oregon and Washington to demand that more Idaho water be flushed down the Columbia for fish passage when they want to divert water already in the river to irrigate crops that directly compete with those grown in his state.


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