Judge hears Columbia River water dispute


Capital Press

SPOKANE — Whether the federal government followed the proper procedures to take more water from the Columbia River is now up to a judge to decide.

The Center for Environmental Law and Policy and Columbia Riverkeeper sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 2008, claiming the agency failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act when it planned to take water from Lake Roosevelt.

U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley heard oral arguments in the case April 14.

Riverkeeper attorney Lauren Goldberg told Whaley the agency failed to adhere to the proper time frame when applying for water rights to draw water from the Columbia River behind Grand Coulee Dam in central Washington state.

Goldberg said the bureau did not consider alternatives to using the water, such as conservation methods, and did not consider the environmental impacts of its actions.

Bureau attorney Charles Shockey told Whaley every single issue before the court had been properly examined by the bureau.

Now both sides will wait for Whaley’s decision, the timing of which is uncertain.

Mike Schwisow, director of government relations for the Columbia Basin Development League, a non-governmental organization that supports the water withdrawals, said the bureau would have to repeat steps it had already appropriately completed if the judge rules in favor of CELP and Columbia Riverkeeper.

If the judge rules in favor of the bureau, the program, already approved by the Washington State Department of Ecology, would proceed, Schwisow said.

“We’re working against a definite need for more water resources, and we would like to see them go forward in a timely manner,” he said.

During a non-drought year, the plan calls for:

* Withdrawing 25,000 acre-feet of water annually for additional municipal and industrial use.

* Withdrawing 30,000 acre-feet annually for farmers in the Odessa Subarea who currently irrigate with a valid state groundwater right.

* Withdrawing 27,500 acre-feet annually to augment instream flows for salmon.

During a drought, it also calls for withdrawing an additional 33,000 acre-feet for people whose water rights are interruptible in drought years and an additional 17,000 acre-feet for instream flow.

CELP executive director Rachael Paschal Osborn said Whaley asked good questions during the hearing.

“This is not a frivolous matter; this isn’t a minor amount of water,” she said. “Every drop of water out of the Columbia at this point is a controversial matter. It’s very difficult to get water rights these days. In fact, it’s almost impossible.”

An environmental group argued in federal court Wednesday that the Bureau of Reclamation did not follow proper procedures in deciding to withdraw additional Lake Roosevelt water for use downstream.

This is tied to the possibility of drawing down Banks Lake in late summer early fall, a decision the bureau will not make until 2011.

About Scott Hunter

Editor of The Star newspaper in Grand Coulee, observer of life, history, patterns in things that matter.
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