Editorial: Legal Threat is a Wake Up Call

Editorial: Legal Threat is a Wake Up Call
The Source Weekly
September 23, 2015

Photo by Gary Nafis, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Photo by Gary Nafis, courtesy US Fish and Wildlife.

As a society, Americans have a reputation for being litigious. This tendency to sue over every too-hot coffee or too-tall neighbor’s fence is tedious, time consuming, and expensive.

But sometimes, lawsuits are the clearest and quickest path to justice. When attempts to work things out informally fail, the mere threat of legal action can be a powerful impetus for change. And when threats fall flat, seeking relief from a judge is not unreasonable, it’s what they’re there for.

Take, for example, the notices of intent to sue, submitted by the environmental groups WaterWatch of Oregon and the Center for Biological Diversity, in response to concerns that local irrigators and the Bureau of Reclamation are mismanaging dams and killing the federally protected Oregon spotted frog.

Representatives from the irrigation districts named in the letters have expressed disappointment over the notices, saying they don’t understand why a group they have collaborated with would take a legal approach.

“WaterWatch is part of the [Deschutes] basin study workgroup,” Central Oregon Irrigation District Manager told the

Source. “It was surprising that they filed the notice when they’ve been sitting with us at the table.” But WaterWatch Communications Director Jim McCarthy writes in a recent letter to the editor that this collaboration has fallen woefully short.

“Representatives of the various irrigation districts have made statements about purported solutions for this stretch of river emerging from a Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) working group,” McCarthy says. “WaterWatch has been a participant in the HCP working group for approximately six years, during which time there has been little to no change in the management of the Upper Deschutes River or impacts to fish and wildlife.”

He goes on to allege that after the irrigation districts set up monthly meetings with the HCP working group that WaterWatch understood were intended to address their concerns as well as those of the state and federal fish and wildlife agencies, those meetings were canceled for eight months straight.

“WaterWatch has been extremely patient, but the time for the politics of postponement is over,” McCarthy concludes. “Solutions for the Upper Deschutes River are needed now, not years from now, and this is why WaterWatch was moved to act.”

As much as we’d prefer a world with fewer lawsuits, we certainly can’t blame WaterWatch and the Center for Biological Diversity for turning up the heat. If the irrigation districts want to avoid a legal battle, they should ensure they are taking appropriate steps to protect the Oregon spotted frog and make those efforts clear and indisputable.

A recent Bulletin editorial notes that, “lawsuits aren’t going to make it rain or snow more.” But the environmental groups aren’t asking for a meteorological miracle. They are asking dam managers to maintain a more consistent flow. And a lawsuit could force the hand of irrigation districts.

We’re all for working things out around the table. But it’s harder to do if you don’t actually show up. The recent decision by the federal government not to list the sage grouse is a good example of how effective collaborations can lead to creative solutions that bypass government intervention.

Perhaps instead of feigning shock and offense that a so-called collaborator would take legal action, irrigators should look to cattle ranchers and others who found a way to work with environmental groups to protect a vulnerable species in a way that works for everyone.