Injunction sought against Oregon irrigation pipeline

October 13, 2020
Injunction sought against Oregon irrigation pipeline

Opponents of replacing open canals with pipelines in Central Oregon’s Tumalo Irrigation District have asked a federal judge for a temporary restraining order to halt the project.

Eight property owners who have filed a lawsuit against the piping project, which is meant to conserve water for the threatened Oregon spotted frog, claim a preliminary injunction is justified because replacing canals would violate the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Tumalo Irrigation District and the USDA, which is helping to fund the project, didn’t sufficiently study alternatives to replacing the open canals, according to the plaintiffs, who fear a loss of seepage-dependent vegetation and lower property values from the piping project.

The plaintiffs argue the district and the federal agency should have thoroughly examined the option of requiring farmers to install “water-efficient fixtures” and implement other water-saving measures instead of replacing canals.

“In fact, these on-farm-efficiency alternatives, had they been fully developed, may have more completely met the stated purpose to conserve as much or more of the water lost to seepage than the selected alternative,” the plaintiffs claim.

The pipeline’s critics claim the irrigation district doesn’t require its users to “grow anything of agricultural value” but allows for the release of “water over desert land for no purpose other than maintaining water rights.”

Alternatives to the pipeline were “possibly ignored” by a nonprofit that studied environmental impacts because the group wanted to further its mission of irrigation system modernization, the injunction motion said.

Up to 69 miles of open canal will be replaced under the project, but the environmental assessment didn’t examine the “cumulative effects” of removing “ecologically valuable riparian vegetation” that depends on seepage, the motion said.

Because the project’s sponsors “predetermined the outcome” and “cherry-picked facts and analyses that meet its preordained choice,” the pipeline’s approval was impermissibly “arbitrary and capricious” under NEPA, the plaintiffs claim.

Landowners with properties next to the canals will “suffer immediate and irreparable injury” due to the loss of “century-old ponderosa pine trees” that will die within three years of the piping installation, as well as reduced property values, the motion said.

“These immediate financial losses are compounded by the numerous benefits that will be lost following the destruction of the riparian zones and surrounding vegetation,” the plaintiffs claim.

The irrigation district plans to oppose the motion for a temporary restraining order in court but cannot discuss the lawsuit in detail, said Ken Rieck, the district’s manager.

Work on the next portion of the project, which involves replacing 4.5 miles of canal with pipelines, is scheduled to begin in late November barring any injunction, he said.

“The project is continuing on at this point,” Rieck said.

Another portion of the project that was finished last year, in which 13 miles of canal were piped, has greatly reduced or eliminated pumping costs for farmers since the water is now pressurized due to gravity, he said.

Meanwhile, the irrigation district has saved enough water to finish the growing season without drastic delivery curtailments despite a drought that’s reduced stored water, Rieck said. “Our demand has gotten low enough that we were able to get through this year.”

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