Lawsuit: Water diversions in Utah’s Sawtooth Valley harming salmon

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

BOISE, Idaho — Nearly two dozen water diversion projects in central Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley are harming federally protected salmon, steelhead and bull trout, an environmental group said in a lawsuit.

The Idaho Conservation League in the 20-page complaint filed Monday in U.S. District Court said the U.S. Forest Service is violating environmental laws by failing to do mandatory consulting on the 23 projects with other federal agencies.

The group said the Forest Service instead continues authorizing the irrigation diversions in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

“The consequences of the Forest Service’s delay have been severe,” the lawsuit states. “Sockeye salmon remain on the brink of extinction, and Chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout are still threatened species which are failing to recover.”

Sockeye salmon are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, while the other species are listed as threatened. All return to the high-elevation Sawtooth Valley after swimming some 900 miles up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers.

The conservation group seeks a court order forcing the Forest Service to complete consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries.

Sawtooth National Forest spokeswoman Julie Thomas said Tuesday the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation. The U.S. Department of Justice, which handles lawsuits against the Forest Service, didn’t respond to queries from The Associated Press.

The Salmon River and eight tributary creeks are listed in the lawsuit as having diversions or some other type of structures harming fish. The lawsuit doesn’t list the purpose of each diversion, but the Sawtooth Valley has ranching and agriculture.

The Sawtooth Valley has already seen a lot of conservation efforts for salmon and steelhead on streams at lower elevations, mainly on private land.

The lawsuit filed Monday concerns public land managed by the Forest Service at higher elevations. Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League said streams at higher elevations, which tend to remain colder than streams at lower elevations, could become increasingly important for cold-water dependent salmon and steelhead due to global warming.

“The (streams) have not received the same level of collaborative work as have the ones on private property,” Hayes said.

The group in the lawsuit said the diversions can lower water levels leading to increased temperatures, reduced oxygen, portions of streams going dry and exposing fish spawning beds, lack of vegetation that provide food and protection from predators, and an increase in susceptibility to disease for the fish.

Putting more water in streams for fish could be an outcome for some areas, Hayes said, but other solutions include moving diversions to another area on the stream or making sure diversions have fish screens to prevent fish from ending up in irrigated fields.

Specifically, the lawsuit says the Forest Service in 2001 prepared environmental documents called Biological Assessments and found most of the 23 diversions are “likely to adversely affect” one or more of the protected species.

Those assessments were sent to Fish and Wildlife and NOAA Fisheries. But in June 2001, NOAA Fisheries notified the Forest Service, according to the lawsuit, that the additional information was needed to begin the consultation. The lawsuit says the Forest Service never followed up with that additional information.

“More than 16 years later, the Forest Service continues to authorize these 23 diversions to be used, operated, and maintained without ESA consultation, even though sockeye salmon, Chinook salmon, steelhead, bull trout, and their habitat have been, are being, and will continue to be harmed by the diversions,” the lawsuit says.

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