International Coalition to Sue U.S. Government over Failure To Protect Colorado River Biodiversity

(12/15/1999) - Fifteen groups from the United States and Mexico today notified the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other federal agencies of their intent to sue over their failure to protect the Colorado River ecosystem on both sides of the U.S.- Mexico border. This international coalition, constituting a broad range of environmental, social, and economic interests, represents more than six million United States and Mexican citizens who have joined in a united effort to restore the riverside jungles and gulf waters where jaguar once roamed and the vaquita porpoise once swam.

For millennia the untamed Colorado River flowed from the Colorado Rockies to the Gulf of California nourishing vast wild areas and wildlife along its path. Today, the lower Colorado River and its basin is an ecosystem under great stress. Dams and diversions that provide river water for sprawling suburban development and agribusiness have all but dried up the lower Colorado River and its delta. Dust storms have replaced muddy waters where the river once reached the sea and in many areas barren salt flats are all that remain.

"Today’s action represents the first formal step to rectify the biological, legal, and ethical wrong the U.S. Government has wrought upon Mexico’s biodiversity," said Rodger Schlickeisen, President of Defenders of Wildlife. "Whether we will resolve this matter by litigation or cooperation is a question that should be addressed to the White House."

In 1995 and 1996, the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife threatened to sue the Bureau of Reclamation under the Endangered Species Act for its failure to consider impacts from the dams and diversions on endangered wildlife. Until then, the Bureau of Reclamation had been attempting to bypass ESA compliance through its support of the Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program (MSCP), a process controlled by state water and power agencies.

Reclamation responded to the lawsuit threat in 1997 by consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over some of the effects of the dams and diversions on listed species of Reclamation’s lower Colorado River operations and maintenance activities, as required by the Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service found at the close of this consultation that Reclamation’s operations jeopardize the bonytail chub, razorback sucker, and southwestern willow flycatcher.

According to David Hogan, Rivers Program Coordinator at the Center, "The Bureau of Reclamation says the multi-species program will minimize and mitigate ongoing destruction of the river. But when the time comes to decide between existing management diverting every last drop of river water for people or leaving some for wildlife, it’s a safe bet the water agencies running the species program will favor the status quo."

Despite identifying threats to U.S.-listed species in Mexico resulting from Reclamation’s river operations in the U.S., the agency refused to consider these impacts in its consultation. These species include the desert pupfish, southwestern willow flycatcher, totoaba (a large marine fish), vaquita (a porpoise) and the Yuma clapper rail. Reclamation also refused to consult over its operations that provide for delivery of water to southwestern states, thus removing from the consultation nearly all of the most ecologically devastating dam and diversion operations. Since completion of the consultation, Reclamation has also failed to carry out various mitigation requirements imposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service to relieve jeopardy to the bonytail, razorback, and flycatcher.

"What we’ve seen is the Bureau of Reclamation narrowly examine the impacts of their water diversions on behalf of agribusiness and development interests by excluding analysis of the broader public interests," said Bill Snape, Legal Director of Defenders of Wildlife. “There is both legal authority and international responsibility to consider the Colorado River ecosystem as one across political boundaries."

Hogan added, "The Bureau of Reclamation has made clear that it cares little for how its actions in the U.S. affect endangered wildlife across the border in Mexico. That’s a sad commentary on a U.S. government agency’s respect for Mexican sovereignty."

The groups have also sent notice to: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its failure to consider the effects of Colorado River flood control management on listed species; the Fish and Wildlife Service for agreeing with Reclamation’s decision to ignore effects of water delivery operations on listed species in both the U.S. and Mexico; the National Marine Fisheries Service for agreeing with the Bureau of Reclamation’s determination to ignore listed species in Mexico; and the U.S. Departments of Interior and State and the International Boundary and Water Commission for failing to implement existing international agreements on wildlife protection or to actively cooperate with Mexico to conserve listed species. The groups believe the Department of Interior must fully involve Mexican agencies and stakeholders in the MSCP.

The groups who have signed the 60-day notice include American Humane Association, Asociación Ecológica de Usuarios del Río Hardy-Colorado, Biodiversity Legal Foundation, Bradshaw Mountain Wildlife Association, Center for Biological Diversity, Centro Regional de Estudios Ambientales y Socioeconomicos, Defenders of Wildlife, Earth Island Institute, El Centro de Derecho Ambiental y Integración Económica del Sur, A.C., El Centro de Estudios de Desierto y Océanos, Forest Guardians, The Humane Society of the United States, In Defense of Animals, Sierra Club, and Southwest Toxic Watch.



Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270