Federal Judges Rule Interior Department Can Use Water For Fish Hatchery

By Tom Bacon

Champions of wild fish restoration in the Columbia River system have lost another battle in their long -and often fruitless - campaign against hatcheries and dams on the vast river system. A trio of federal appeals judges has tossed out a demand by the Wild Fish Conservancy that the federal Department of the Interior quit stealing water from Icicle Creek, a cold, natural stream which runs into the Wenatchee River, for operation of a fish hatchery.

(In a small bit of irony, the Department of the Interior is run by Washington State's Sally Jewell, who won a top award from the Audubon Society just four years ago for her conservation work.) The wild fish proponents claimed that a one-mile diversion canal along Icicle Creek to feed the federal Leavenworth fish hatchery is illegal under both state and federal law.

The hatchery, they said, blocks wild salmon and other fish from miles of traditional habitat, that it diverts water without a valid state water right, and that it pollutes by discharging warmer water with excessive nutrients. The hatchery was built in the first place to mitigate blockage of Columbia River water caused by the Grand Coulee dam.

The appeals judges essentially threw up their hands, ruling that they they really cannot weigh in on state law, and that they lack the power of judicial review because the Department of the Interior has not issued a final decision. They also ruefully noted that the dispute is a nuanced conflict between two entities trying to repair the damage that dams have done to the river system's fisheries. They cited a summation written by an historian named Donald Worster, who described the Columbia as "the river that died and was reborn as money."

In combination with deforestation, over-fishing, irrigation, grazing, mining and urbanization, the native salmon and steelhead populations were reduced from levels of mythic abundance to the brink of extinction. But, the judges said - it's not our problem.
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