BILLINGS — U.S. government attorneys have asked a federal judge to lift an injunction blocking a proposed irrigation dam on the Yellowstone River that critics say could doom an endangered fish.
Federal agencies want to start construction on the $57 million project in July, almost two years after U.S. District Judge Brian Morris issued an injunction in response to a lawsuit from wildlife advocates.
Further delay could result in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers using money currently set aside for the project for other purposes, Justice Department attorneys said in court documents filed Wednesday night.
The dam would divert irrigation water for 55,000 acres of croplands in Montana and North Dakota. It would include a 2-mile fish bypass channel northeast of Glendive, Montana, so that decades-old pallid sturgeon could reach upstream spawning grounds.
In blocking construction as it was set to begin in September 2015, Morris agreed with critics who said the Corps and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had not shown that the bypass would work.
Pallid sturgeon can reach 6 feet in length, live up to 50 years and are known for a distinctive, long snout that’s changed little over millions of years. They’ve been around since the time of dinosaurs but suffered widespread decline after dams were built along the Missouri River system in recent decades.
Only about 125 wild sturgeon survive in the Yellowstone. A government-sponsored restoration program for the species ranks among the most expensive for any imperiled wildlife.
Federal officials completed further environmental studies last year and concluded that the channel was the sturgeon’s best hope.
“This species simply cannot tolerate further delay,” Justice Department attorney Coby Howell wrote in the request to lift the injunction. “Each year that goes by without reliable passage denies the vast majority of pallid sturgeon the opportunity to spawn in the Yellowstone River’s upper reaches.”
The dam would supply water to about 400 farms that produce sugar beets, barley, wheat and other crops. Irrigation users have backed the government in its defense of a lawsuit against the project by Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Scientists from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and independent experts who reviewed the government’s latest studies have expressed doubt that sturgeon would use the bypass.
Biologists have said the best option for sturgeon would be to remove an existing rock weir at the site of the proposed dam so the fish could pass freely up the river. That idea was rejected by federal officials as too costly because it would require the installation of pumps to provide water to farmers.
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