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Commentaries and editorials

Crapo to Bring Groups Together
on Upper Snake Water Use

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 19, 2003

Idaho's Sen. Mike Crapo has taken on the challenge of refocusing a long-running and fractious debate about how much water, if any, should be siphoned from Idaho's upper Snake River Basin to augment downstream Snake/Columbia flows for migrating salmon and steelhead.

The senator succeeded last week in stalling threatened litigation that the state's irrigators say could topple Idaho's $5 billion agriculture industry by draining the upper basin of water to increase flows for downstream salmon and steelhead.

Four conservation groups, which on Aug. 22 issued a 60-day notice on intent to sue the federal government over the operations of 10 irrigation projects on the upper Snake River, say they just want flow augmentation that the fish, and law, require.

The dams and reservoirs, all located above the Hells Canyon Complex of dams, are operated and maintained by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which estimates diversions irrigate about 1.6 million Idaho acres. The project operations are judged -- in a NOAA Fisheries 2001 biological opinion -- not to be a threat to the survival salmon and steelhead that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The lawsuit notice says the projects are being operated in violation of the ESA because of flaws in that biological opinion, which the conservation groups insist must be redone. In the meantime, the groups want the system should be operated to provide, at minimum, the water to meet spring and summer flow objectives called for in NOAA Fisheries BiOp for Federal Columbia River Power System, which includes the Lower Snake River.

The notice letter prompted an angry and aggressive response from Idaho's primary agricultural user groups, who say that scientific studies show flow augmentation does little to help speed juvenile salmon's migration toward the Pacific Ocean. The irrigators sought to bring pressure against the conservation groups from all angles. That included asking farmers, ranchers and local government entities to drop out of negotiations regarding two separate wilderness proposals in the state that are sought by conservation groups.

Crapo decided to step into the breach, asking first that the conservation groups withdraw the notice letter, and that resource groups resume good faith negotiations regarding the the Owyhee (Canyonlands) Initiative and the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains wilderness proposal.

"They are unconnected," Crapo said Thursday of the water and wilderness issues. He intends to bring the conservation groups, irrigators and involved federal agencies together in the coming weeks to seek a settlement on the water issue. He called water allocation one of the biggest issues facing the Northwest.

"The bottom line is that we have an excellent opportunity to bring these groups together to try find common ground," Crapo said.

"I have been a strong believer in collaborative efforts" at problem solving, he said.

The senator wanted "everyone to take one step back," said Lindsay Nothern, Crapo's press secretary. The Idaho Republican plans to be an active participant in the talks.

"He wants to be in the room, if at all possible," Nothern said.

Norm Semanko says the irrigators appreciate Crapo's intervention, though they will enter negotiations warily. Semanko is Coalition for Idaho Water president and Idaho Water Users Association executive director.

"This is big stakes for Idaho," Semanko said of water right and allocation issues. He and the resource users represented by the Coalition want to prevent a situation like that faced in Oregon's Klamath River Basin, where biological opinion prescriptions forced the shutoff of water to some 200,000 farm acres during 2001's drought. An Idaho shutoff would affect 10 times that many acres, he said.

The coalition of conservation groups announced Sept. 11 that it would withdraw for 30 days the notice of intent to sue over the operation of Upper Snake River irrigation projects "in order to explore settlement with Idaho irrigation interests, the Bureau of Reclamation, and NOAA Fisheries."

"We sincerely appreciate the senator's efforts to bring water users and the Bureau to the table on this issue," said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United. "It is our collective hope that we can resolve the issues in this case through negotiation, rather than litigation."

"In response to the senator's call for talks, we will be glad to sit down with interested parties and the Bureau in an attempt to resolve this case," said Justin Hayes, program director for the Idaho Conservation League. "There are a number of issues to resolve, but we're willing to give settlement discussions a shot." American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation also signed the notice letter, and agreed to its withdrawal.

"A fruitful dialogue could yield results that would negate the need to file litigation," according to a letter from the conservation groups to the senator. "Our overriding concern is to provide salmon and steelhead critically needed help, including water, at a time when the Administration and its agencies are failing to deliver their promised measures for salmon virtually across the board.

"We hope that with your leadership this time will allow for substantive progress towards resolving our concerns," the groups said.

The Coalition for Idaho Water, which consists of 20 groups with a direct, critical interest in protecting Idaho water, has called the threatened lawsuit "an attempt to close down Idaho irrigators and allow all of the Snake, Boise and Payette Rivers' storage water to be used for flow augmentation.." The group, during an early September meeting, also reaffirmed its opposition to removal of the four lower Snake River dams as a solution to salmon recovery.

"This is not only ludicrous, since good science has demonstrated that flow augmentation does virtually nothing to help the fish," Semanko said. "It's a dangerous move that invites wild changes in Idaho's environment and devastation for our residents and their way of life."

The environmental groups, citing different scientific information, say in their notice that "it is well documented that low water flows during periods of spring and summer migration reduce salmon and steelhead survival in many ways."

"Flow targets (outlined in the 2000 FCRPS BiOp) are a starting point," said Steve Mashuda of Earthjustice, one of the conservation groups' attorneys. The notice letter had stressed the groups believe that an analysis of the fishes' in-stream needs must be carried out via a re-consultation on the Upper Snake BiOp between NOAA and the bureau.

"And the flow targets themselves are not being met, regardless of whether they are adequate," Mashuda said of recent years' operations.

Semanko says that increased flows will not help the fish, and that providing the amount of water needed to meet the targets is impossible even if all the available water was left in-stream for fish.

Semanko called the move "eco-extortion."

"They hope by this threat to move the debate to a 'compromise' that would result in the removal of the four lower Snake River dams. That won't happen," Semanko said of the threatened lawsuit. He noted that other Idaho residents would be severely impacted by a move to end irrigation.

"Kayakers and other floaters depend on late summer flows that won't be there if we simply allow the bulk of the water to flow through in the spring or early summer as it does on unregulated rivers," he said. "Aquifers and spring flows that are recharged from irrigation would drop. The hundreds of thousands of people who've come to live here since the dams were built could find themselves without the water they need."

Outfitters and guides would also suffer as reservoirs and wildlife refuges that supported whole fisheries and wildlife are dried up, he said.

"Over the last 100 years, irrigated agriculture has changed the environment, particularly in Southern Idaho," Semanko said. "A rapid alteration of that environment could be disastrous. About the only thing we know for sure is that it could not, ever, return to its pre-irrigation condition."

The IWUA, Idaho's largest water user group, says it has been deluged with calls from worried irrigators, legislators and industry representatives following the filing of the 60-day notice.

"With the state already locked in three years of drought and limited water supplies, the news of this environmentalists eco-extortion threat has hit Idaho water users like a bombshell," Semanko said. "Following the Labor Day weekend, we have had nonstop phone calls and emails. Just about everyone we have heard from is worried about a potential Idaho 'Klamath' crisis."

Coalition members include such groups as The Idaho Dairymen's Association, the J.R. Simplot Company, the Committee of Nine, the Idaho Water Users Association, the Idaho Food Processors Association, the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, the Idaho Aquaculture Association, the Potato Growers of Idaho and the Idaho Cattle Association.

Barry Espenson
Crapo to Bring Groups Together on Upper Snake Water Use
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 19, 2003

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