Nez Perce sues over Lewiston irrigation plan

Lewiston, Idaho (AP) June 2010

The Nez Perce Tribe is again challenging a plan that decides how much water is diverted from Webb and Sweetwater creeks to a Lewiston irrigation district, saying it does not leave enough for the threatened steelhead.

The Lewiston Tribune reported the tribe filed a federal lawsuit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division last week in Moscow.

Tribal Chairman McCoy Oatman argues the agency’s plan prioritizes water for lawns and landscaping for residents of Lewiston Orchards over the needs of the fish.

In April, the federal agency issued a new plan that requires 2.5 cubic feet of water per second be allowed to flow past a diversion dam on Sweetwater Creek from June through October, while leaving 1 cfs in Webb Creek. The tribe successfully challenged an earlier plan.

The Webb and Sweetwater creeks have been designated critical habitat for steelhead, and they also supply water for the irrigation district.

“Once again, NOAA fisheries has issued a (Lewiston Orchards Project biological opinion) that prioritizes water for suburban lawns and landscaping over the flows and critical habitat that Snake River steelhead require,” said tribal Chairman McCoy Oatman.

The irrigation system is owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and operated by the district. Patrons routinely face water rationing during hot summer months. When the plan was released in April, LOID manager Barney Metz also found fault with it, saying the amount of water allocated for steelhead would make it difficult for customers to receive their share of water.

The tribe, irrigation district and county and city officials have been working to get congressional funding for a pumping station that would bring water to the region from a nearby river and lake. That station would cost about $20 million to build, and as much as $730,000 to operate each year.

Oatman said the tribe continues to see that possibility as the best solution.