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Judge Rules Against Idaho Farmers

by Michelle Dunlop, Times-News writer
Times-News, May 24, 2006

Order favors salmon advocates

Cartoon by Carol Simpson 2006 TWIN FALLS -- Magic Valley farmers found themselves on the losing end Tuesday of a federal judge's ruling that had environmentalists cheering.

"It could create problems for all irrigators," said Lynn Tominaga, executive director of the Idaho Ground Water Appropriators. "It puts a lot of folks in jeopardy."

U.S. District Court Judge James Redden declared that federal agencies need to study the effect on salmon recovery of 12 Snake River projects -- including reservoirs that hold water for Magic Valley irrigators -- along with hydroelectric dams. Redden ruled against not only the federal government but also various Idaho water groups and the state of Idaho. The ruling puts southern Idaho reservoirs at risk of being drained to benefit endangered salmon.

Redden ruled a year ago that the Bush administration's 2004 plan for making the hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake and Columbia safe for threatened and endangered salmon violated the Endangered Species Act, in part because it considered the dams as part of the landscape and only considered changes in how the dams were operated, not dam removal.

Salmon advocates, such as Idaho Rivers United and American Rivers Inc., also challenged the validity of the 2005 biological opinion governing operations of irrigation projects on the Snake River above Hells Canyon, which make life tougher for salmon by diverting large amounts of water that would otherwise go downstream.

"Rebuilding salmon to healthy, harvestable levels will come in large part from addressing the impacts of the down-river dam operations that do the most harm to salmon," Redden wrote. "There must be a comprehensive evaluation of the effects of water use in the upper Snake River and the down-river dam operations."

Bill Sedivy of Idaho Rivers United said the ruling could force the federal government one step closer to the removal of four "out-of-date" dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington -- a move Sedivy says can resolve the Northwest salmon crisis and protect Idaho water users.

Environmental groups like Idaho Rivers United have pointed to studies showing that removal of the lower Snake dams would give Idaho's wild salmon and steelhead an 80 to 100 percent chance of recovery. They also note that the diminished salmon and steelhead population harms families and towns economically tied to fishing and tourism.

"The modest salmon returns we're seeing in Idaho this year show us again that the status quo isn't working," Sedivy said.

Bill McDonald, northwest regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that operates southern Idaho's reservoirs, said the ruling was not unexpected, and that the government disagreed with it. The specifics of going forward depend on further orders from the judge and the outcome of the pending appeal of the biological opinion for the lower Snake and Columbia, he added.

Water users in Magic Valley remain leery of Redden's ruling. Both Tominaga and Vince Alberdi, manager of the Twin Falls Canal Co., say the order puts pressure on all irrigators, be they surface or groundwater users.

"It just puts a cloud of jeopardy on our water," Alberdi said. "It's just not good for the irrigation community.".

Michelle Dunlop, Times-News writer
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Judge Rules Against Idaho Farmers
Times-News, May 24, 2006

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