(July 5, 2017) A new temporary injunction halting the construction of a Fish Bypass Channel on the Yellowstone River has come at a critical time for Pallid Sturgeon and farmers. The diversion dam on the Yellowstone River north of Glendive has provided water to irrigators for 108 years, making a lush and productive valley in eastern Montana. The injunction was handed down this week from the 9th District Court in Great Falls. The injunction comes from a hearing on June 19th to consider new motions from the Defenders of Wildlife that sought a new injunction on the construction project. The group claims that the federal government failed in their environmental study for the bypass and that the operation of the dam itself is illegal.
The Army Corp or Engineers has spent years working to develop the proposed Lower Yellowstone Intake Diversion Dam Fish Passage, including the approval of an Environmental Impact Statement that determined that the proposed ByPass Channel was the best alternative for fish populations and for agriculture.
In 2015, the LYIP tried to build the fish bypass at the urging of wildlife biologists suggesting in 2010 that by the year 2018 wild Pallid Sturgeon would be too old to reproduce naturally to recover the wild population of sturgeon. In September of 2015 a judge placed an injunction on the project construction at the request of the Defenders of Wildlife. That injunction was lifted in April of 2017. Brower said that after the Defenders of Wildlife asked for a new injunction in June, that now the construction is halted on the only possible fish passage solution that could be built in time to save the wild Pallid Sturgeon population before they become too old to repopulate naturally. And, the funding for the project could be canceled.
Aaron Hall, Rockies and Plains Representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement on the Defenders of Wildlife Website that, “the ruling gives pallid sturgeon a chance at a future in the Yellowstone River. By granting the injunction, the court now has time to review the legality of this destructive project. We must stop this flawed dam-building plan that could doom the pallid sturgeon in its best remaining stronghold and replace it with a common-sense solution: a pumping system to provide irrigation water to neighboring farms and a free-flowing Yellowstone River to provide secure habitat for the fish.”
The Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project is greatly disappointed that after years of cooperative work and study with all interested parties it has come to another injunction. LYIP said in a statement that, “we are saddened that once again the self-named “Defenders of Wildlife “have stopped the construction of the only possible fish passage solution that could have been built in time to save the wild Pallid Sturgeon population before they became too old to reproduce and recover the Wild Pallid Sturgeon population.” LYIP also added that, “we are still assessing this ruling but see no immediate impact to our ability to continue providing irrigation water to the Lower Yellowstone Valley.”
James Brower the manager of the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project spoke to Northern Ag Network and shared their frustrations. He said that, “anyone that has seen the existing conditions and then shown the plans for the new fish bypass knows that this will be a great improvement over the congressionally authorized diversion weir that is out here.”
Currently, LYIP is still assessing the 30-page injunction. At this time, there is no immediate impact on the LYIP’s ability to provide irrigation water to farmers in the lower Yellowstone Valley this year and hopefully next year. James Brower adds that, “what is being irreparably harmed is the endangered species that we have worked for 20 years to find a viable solution to pass the fish without jeopardizing the five communities in this valley.” In addition, Brower says that, “the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology have proved that the drinking wells for the cities of Sidney, Savage and Fairview are recharged by the irrigation project and irrigation itself” adding that “if anything affects our ability to irrigate it affects our drinking wells.”
There may be a bright side for the fish, farmers and rural citizens that are impacted by the injunction. James Brower said that the judge that issued the injunction may be trying to do the right thing by ordering the immediate scheduling of briefings and everything necessary for summary judgment. This way the judge can rule on the entire case as soon as possible.
What is at risk currently is the $57 Million dollars in funding from the Army Corps of Engineers to build the fish bypass. If the funding goes away or if the judge caused another delay in construction, the Army Corps would end the project. If the project is ended, not only is the Pallid Sturgeon’s future jeopardized but it will impact the rural citizens of Montana and North Dakota.
The LYPI is urging everyone to contact your elected officials in Washington to D.C. and tell them to urge the Army Corps of Engineers to continue to support the Lower Yellowstone Irrigation Project fish bypass project. With the Judge hopefully issuing Summary Judgement soon, there is hope that both the Fish and the Farmer can be saved.
Northern Ag Network 2017