9th Circuit Mulls Impact of River Project

     SEATTLE (CN) – Environmental groups have asked the 9th Circuit to shelve an irrigation project on the Columbia River because the Bureau of Reclamation allegedly failed to properly address cumulative impacts.

     The Center for Environmental Law and Policy and Columbia Riverkeeper had previously sued to stop the Lake Roosevelt Drawdown Project, which will provide water for irrigation, municipal and industrial use, because the bureau did not conduct a required Environmental Impact Statement. After the action began, the Bureau completed an analysis and found no significant impact.
     Concluding that the agency had complied with the timing requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and that the analysis adequately considered alternatives and cumulative effects, U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley dismissed the complaint.
     Sean Malone, representing the Center for Environmental Law and Policy and Columbia Riverkeeper, told an appellate panel last Tuesday that the project would build new infrastructure and possibly lead to future development. The environmental analysis failed to address this impact, he said.
     “When you expand infrastructure, when you increase the capacity of some facility or some infrastructure – in this case a massive subterranean pipe – that the NEPA requires that you consider those indirect effects that will happen later in time if they’re reasonably foreseeable,” Malone said.
     Judge Consuelo M. Callahan suggested a familiar archetype: “This seems like a parent, in the sense if you let them have an inch, then they’re going to take a foot.”
     Judge Mary M. Schroeder asked Malone: “Your concern is that it’s like being an enabler?”
     The government’s attorney, David Shilton, said the analysis did consider future impacts and cumulative effects.
     “It noted that future development of additional water-delivery projects in the area could result in a number of environmental impacts, including impacts to water quality, increased fish migration times and further reductions in the shrub steppe habitat if irrigated acreage increases,” he said. “But then it reasonably concludes that these possible impacts don’t amount to the sort of significant impact that would require an EIS at this point.”
     Callahan countered with yet more metaphors. “But they’re concerned you’re letting the horse out of the barn, the train out of the station,” Callahan said.
     Shilton replied that the reclamation bureau has not made any sort of commitment for future projects and that the financing is not available for more development.
     Co-counsel Tom Young rejected the argument that the plan will lead to a large expansion of the Columbia Basin Project and a large expansion of irrigated agriculture. “That is absolutely not the case at all,” he said.
     To expand the Columbia Basin Project, much more infrastructure would be required and the smallest additions would cost “half a billion dollars,” Young said.
     Judge Callahan interrupted Malone’s rebuttal to ask how the federal and state governments’ current bankruptcies affect the foreseeable future.
     Malone replied: “I guess that’s an interesting question that I hadn’t taken into account.”

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