Eastern Montana Irrigators Work to Provide for Fish Habitat, Challenged By Lawsuit
Irrigators in Eastern Montana find themselves in the midst of a lawsuit involving a 100-year-old diversion dam and habitat for the pallid sturgeon. Despite efforts made by irrigators to provide project allowances to protect fish habitat, environmentalist groups are pressing forward with damage claims.
On August 27, a preliminary injunction hearing will be held to stop construction on modifications to the Intake Diversion Dam on the Lower Yellowstone River in front of Judge Morris at the Federal District Court. The diversion dam, dating back to 1905, was constructed to divert water into a main canal in order to provide dependable water supply sufficient to irrigate over 50,000 acres of land.
In February, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a lawsuit charging that Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in operating two dams in the upper Missouri River Basin, which are endangering the pallid sturgeon.
Plaintiffs claim the Intake Diversion Dam on the Yellowstone River blocks pallid sturgeon from reaching critical spawning grounds. The groups also claim timing and temperature of water releases from the Fort Peck Dam destroy the sturgeons’ spawning and rearing habitat in the main stem Missouri.
Current construction plans provide special consideration to protect the migration paths and habitat of the fish. This includes necessary updates to the diversion provide for development of a fish bypass and placement of a concrete weir that supplies the irrigation project in order to protect the migration paths and habitat of the fish.
According to Dr. Gary Brester, Professor of Agricultural Economics at Montana State University, “the annual average total crop value produced by this irrigation district (over the past five years) is estimated to be slightly more than $54 million.” Mr. Brester goes on to state that if irrigation were to cease, production values for this area would face an estimated $40 million reduction, representing a substantial decline in economic activity.
Jim Steinbeisser, District Director for Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA) and irrigation project user, also identifies the importance of the 100-year-old diversion dam to irrigators in the area, “Our community depends on this project for the many jobs that it creates due to the productiveness of the valley, and the stability that irrigation water provides,” says Steinbeisser.
Due to the critical importance of this lawsuit, Gene Curry, President of MSGA, also filed a declaration. Mr. Curry stated, “The irrigated fields within this project area, provide a significant grazing resource for livestock, which would also be critically reduced with the loss of irrigation. Livestock producers would be forced to look for alternative grazing pastures outside the area, reducing the livestock herd or complete dispersion of the herd if other grazing opportunities are not available.”
In order to address ESA concerns in 2007, the Corps received authorization to assist the Bureau of Reclamation with protecting fish from becoming entrained in the irrigation canal and improving fish passage at the diversion dam. Construction of a new headworks structure with screens to reduce fish entrainment in the irrigation canal was completed in spring 2012.
A second phase in the project included a supplemental Environmental Assessment that identified alternatives to modify the existing diversion dam located in Intake, to improve passage for endangered pallid sturgeon and other native fish in the lower Yellowstone River.
The Bureau and Corps stated in their decision, “the action alternative would both be expected to improve fish passage for pallid sturgeon and other native fish, and are not expected to result in any long-term adverse impacts to any threatened or endangered species, or species of special concern.” The current lawsuit has challenged this decision.
Montana Stockgrowers previously submitted formal comments regarding project modifications and will continue to provide input where needed. MSGA believes the work proposed in the EA will allow agencies to address fish migration concerns and provide for irrigators who are of great importance to the area’s communities and economy.