Craig's Rider Axed by Demsby Matt Christensen
Times-News, December 21, 2007
Move complicates salmon case, threatens Nez Perce water deal
Democrats have removed language inserted into a federal spending bill by Sen. Larry Craig that would have protected a major water rights agreement between the state and the Nez Perce Tribe.
Without Craig's portion of the bill, a federal judge could jeopardize the deal, which resolved the tribe's claims to massive water rights on the Snake River, and threaten other Idaho water users.
"We're certainly disappointed," said Craig spokesman Sid Smith. "That (deal) was something that was already agreed upon by a huge number of water users, the tribe, the state and the federal government."
Craig's spending bill rider would have directed the Interior Department to implement "without further delay" a federal plan to manage Northwestern dams that was ruled illegal by U.S. District Judge James Redden. That plan was integral to the Nez Perce deal.
Redden is expected to rule soon on another federal dam plan after rejecting two previous proposals he said didn't do enough to protect salmon.
Idaho's entire congressional delegation lobbied to keep Craig's rider in the spending bill after Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Appropriation subcommittee and a California Democrat, to pull Craig's language from the bill in September.
Craig had recently lost political clout on the Senate Appropriations Committee following an airport bathroom sex scandal.
This week, the delegation again issued a joint statement against removing Craig's rider.
"Three years ago, Congress approved the Snake River Basin Adjudication to resolve a decades-old dispute over the use of water in the Snake River," the statement said. "An agreement was reached to meet the various demands for the water, and it was one agreed to by a broad array of users, Congress and the president. The language we worked to insert into the omnibus appropriations bill was meant to reaffirm Congress's commitment to the law of the land."
The delegation contends the agreement is still binding, despite Redden's rulings.
"Regardless, the law still stands, and we hope that federal judges pay attention to that because it is our best hope to restore salmon and maintain our economy," the Idaho Republicans said.
Environmentalists have said the previous plans, and the one currently before Redden, don't do enough to protect salmon. Earlier this month, Redden indicated the newest plan still isn't adequate and said he may take dam management into his own hands instead of asking the government to draft another proposal.
Idaho water users worry the judge could require the state to release thousands of acre feet of water - including water in the Nez Perce Agreement - to increase downstream flows for salmon. One acre foot typically meets the demands of two homes for one year.
That could mean unmitigated disaster for farmers and utilities in southern Idaho, Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association, said shortly after Democrats indicated they'd remove Craig's rider.
President Bush is expected to sign the spending bill, and Redden is expected to make his ruling early next year.
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