6/4/2014 4:53:00 AM,
Philip A. Janquart
BOISE, Idaho (CN) - Irrigation in Idaho's Salmon-Challis National Forest is diminishing natural stream flows, harming threatened fish species and their habitat, an environmental group claims in Federal Court.
"Surface water diversions" in the Salmon-Challis National Forest include dams and irrigation ditches for electricity and agriculture that can harm native Chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout, which have thrived in the region for thousands of years.
"Diversions harm these species and their habitat by decreasing water flows in rivers where fish spawn, rear and migrate; blocking fish from passing up and down the rivers; and diverting fish out of rivers," the Idaho Conservation League claims in its lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service and NOAA Fisheries.
The Salmon-Challis National Forest covers more than 4.3 million acres in east-central Idaho, including the 1.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Salmon River and its Middle Fork.
Chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Chinook and steelhead have historically migrated to the Pacific Ocean via the Snake River Basin and the Columbia River, returning to Idaho's rivers and streams to spawn. Bull trout also once thrived in Idaho and the Columbia River.
Water diversions, primarily irrigation in this case, have created obstacles that contributed to the species' dwindling numbers, according to the complaint.
The Idaho Conservation League claims that U.S. Forest Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration failed to complete biological opinions of more than 150 water diversion points within the national forest.
The biological opinions were supposed to be completed by the NOAA after a 2001 lawsuit that resulted in the division of the Salmon-Challis National Forest (SCNF) into 11 watersheds.
"The Forest Service agreed to initiate consultation under Section 7 of the ESA for its action authorizing surface water diversions located in the SCNF - something it had never done before," according to the complaint.
The Forest Service completed biological assessments of the watersheds in 2007, handing them over to the NOAA for ESA consultation for Chinook and steelhead, and to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for bull trout. The NOAA was charged with developing biological opinions on the diversions based, in part, on the Forest Service's assessments.
The Idaho Conservation League says those assessments conclude that many diversions are hurting the fish and their habitat. The Forest Service nonetheless proposed to "authorize, reauthorize and allow the use, operation and maintenance of approximately 150 existing surface water diversions in the SCNF," according to the complaint.
The environmental group says years have passed, yet eight consultations, representing more than 100 diversions, have not been completed. In addition, the watershed consultation for bull trout was terminated by the Forest Service in August 2013 after Fish & Wildlife dragged its feet for more than six years.
The Conservation League says the Forest Service is required under the ESA to take precautions to prevent the loss of threatened fish species, including "imposing minimum stream flows; removing and/or replacing diversions that block fish passage; installing headgates, fish screens and water measuring devices at diversions; and monitoring diversions and stream flows."
The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment under the Administrative Procedures Act and the Endangered Species Act. They ask the court to order the NOAA to complete the biological opinions on the remaining watersheds within 145 days, and issue an injunction forcing the defendants to prevent the harm of the listed fish species through full compliance with the ESA.
The Conservation League is represented by Bryan Hurlbutt with Advocates for the West.