As the Wind River slices through the 2.2 million-acre Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, home to some 8,000 Shoshone and Arapaho tribal members, it becomes the "most abused water system in the Western United States," says Tom Dougherty of the National Wildlife Federation.
aren't the abusers. Dougherty says the culprits are non-Indian
farmers with water rights who blatantly violate the
The latest episode started last summer, when
the LeClair Irrigation District dumped old car bodies, engine
blocks, dishwashers and other trash into the river bed. The
district, which serves farmers with Wind River water rights, wanted
to block the river, then divert water to its irrigation ditches. It
did not bother to obtain a federal 404 permit from the Army Corps
The Corps ordered the district to
remove the trash and a huge dike that had been formed to take the
river out of an old channel. But when the district stalled last
fall, the National Wildlife Federation filed a 60-day notice of its
intent to sue.
The district has subsequently
removed some of the trash, but much of the river remains
channelized and the fill material is still there. Now the
federation is poised to carry out its
Norm Young, an attorney for the
irrigation district, says the environmental group is making a big
stink about a relatively minor problem. "I think the National
Wildlife Federation has blown it all out of proportion," he
Dick Baldes, a biologist for the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service and a member of the Shoshone Tribe, sees it
differently. "They (the irrigators) have been exceeding their water
rights and raping the river for all these years and getting away
with it," he says. "I'm glad to see the National Wildlife
Federation involved because they can't get the clamps put on them
like we can as a federal agency."
the dumping of car bodies and other violations of the Clean Water
Act have been going on for years. In 1983, for instance, the Corps
issued the LeClair district an "after-the-fact" permit for digging
and filling the river. Last year, Baldes says, the whole river was
diverted into irrigation canals, even though the tribes also have
rights to the river.
"What kind of people dry up
an entire river?" asks Baldes. "There's obviously a total lack of
concern for other uses of the river."
is that although the tribes have been awarded a senior water right
of 500,000 acre-feet, they haven't been allowed to use the water
for anything other than agriculture (HCN, 8/27/90). The tribe would
like to leave some of the water in the river to support a trout
fishery and attract tourism to the impoverished reservation. Over
the past several years, Baldes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service have planted nearly 500,000 brown and rainbow trout in the
river, at a cost of $250,000.
"When we had water
in the river the fish were starting to come back," says Dave
Skates, a fisheries biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"There's no doubt it could be an outstanding fishery."
Even when there is water in the river,
irrigators damage the fishery by periodically flushing tons of silt
down the river from their diversion structures, Baldes and Skates
say. The fine sediment chokes fish and smothers spawning beds. "All
of these abuses just have a cumulative effect," says
Distrust between the irrigators and the
federal scientists is high. In the ongoing controversy over the
dumped cars, the LeClair people did not ask for the help of the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when they attempted to stabilize the
"We could have helped them do it
right," says Baldes. "Look at how much money it's cost to do it
wrong, then do it over to get it right."
Instead, LeClair filed criminal trespass charges
against Baldes after he brought the dumping problem to the
attention of the Corps and the National Wildlife
Meanwhile, the federation is awaiting
a formal reply from the Corps over the LeClair cleanup. Until that
is in hand, the conservation group will keep its threat of a
lawsuit alive, says Susan Horner, an attorney with the group. Even
then, she says, "I expect the Corps is going to be more satisfied
with what is done than we will be."
The writer freelances out
of Lander, Wyoming.