The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Billings, says the Corps is jeopardizing the future of the Yellowstone by issuing permits for bank stabilization projects such as dikes, barbs and rip-rap, without understanding the cumulative impacts of these projects on the Yellowstone's health.
"The National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act give the Corps clear direction," said Jim Angell, attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which is representing the plaintiffs.
"These laws instruct the Corps to look before it leaps, to understand if it is damaging the Yellowstone River before issuing these permits. But the Corps is ignoring these requirements and gambling with a resource that belongs to all Montanans and all Americans. In short, the Corps is not only acting recklessly, it's breaking the law."
The Yellowstone is the longest free-flowing river remaining in the lower-48 states, traveling more than 670 miles with no dams. The river is famous for its cottonwood forest, bald eagles and world-class trout fishery. In addition to its natural values, the Yellowstone is important recreationally, economically and historically.
But the Yellowstone is steadily losing its natural riverbanks. Projects approved by the Corps -- at an accelerating pace -- have replaced vegetation with boulders. They have also replaced meandering currents that create pools, side channels and gravel bars -- all of which are important for fish and wildlife -- with a single armored channel flowing with greater force.
"We're getting a battering ram instead of a natural river," said Bruce Farling, Executive Director of the Montana Council of Trout Unlimited. Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Sierra Club, Park County Environmental Council, Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society and Montana River Action Network.
"There have been so many warnings in the past year," added Farling. "The Fish and Wildlife Service told the Corps: 'You're killing the river. Take a time-out. Study what you're doing.' Montana's newspapers declared the river precious and urged caution. So did the Environmental Protection Agency ."
"Now we're in court. We're in court because the Yellowstone has a thousand cuts and the Corps of Engineers is ignoring everyone's advice which is: 'get the Yellowstone a doctor's checkup. Find out if you're hurting this river."
Funding has recently been approved for a limited study in Park County. But this analysis of impacts from dikes and rip-rap comes after the Corps issued scores of permits instead of before. Furthermore, the Corps has refused to stop issuing permits while the study is conducted.
The lawsuit filed Thursday cites 15 specific permits issued by the Corps of Engineers "despite the Corps' admission that the cumulative impacts of the projects are not known and that further study is needed." The suit asks for an injunction prohibiting the Corps from granting non-emergency bank stabilization permits until the agency conducts the studies that are required by law.
"We're trying to keep the Yellowstone a healthy river," said Dennis Glick of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "But this is also about keeping people out of harm's way. The Corps is giving landowners a false sense of security. The Corps knows that dikes and rip- rap have failed across the country to keep floods out of flood plains, but it's taking the Yellowstone, and people living next to it, down the same dangerous path. Montanans deserve better than to repeat mistakes made throughout the nation."
"Taxpayers are also being hurt," said Kris Prinzing of the Sierra Club. "By granting these permits with hardly a second thought, the Corps is reinforcing the notion that people can live in a floodplain without being flooded. That's not true, of course, and we've seen painful evidence in recent years on rivers like the Mississippi."
Taxpayers spend $5 billion a year reimbursing victims of floods. Many of these victims choose to live in floodplains they believe are "protected" by dikes and other flood control structures approved by the Corps.
"If the Corps of Engineers closes its eyes to the evidence, we will get more people living in flood zones, then more people flooded and, inevitably, a bigger flood repair bill for taxpayers," added Prinzing. "This lawsuit is aimed at preventing an unnecessary risk to human safety and to the pocketbooks of taxpayers."