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Commentaries and editorials

Crapo to Continue Facilitating Talks
over Upper Snake Water Use

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - October 3, 2003

Two sets of special interest groups that are normally at total loggerheads found enough to talk about Saturday that they plan to meet again, with Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo as facilitator, to discuss the allocation of Upper Snake River basin water for farms and for fish.

Crapo brought together more than 50 people representing agricultural and municipals water users, business organizations, environmental groups, federal agencies, the governor's office and state Legislature, tribes, and others last weekend to discuss issues related to threatened lawsuit. The 6 -hour session was the first face-to-face meeting of the groups.

At Crapo's request, four conservation groups have delayed until at least Oct. 12 their threat of a 60-day notice of intent to sue the federal government over its operation plan for Upper Snake River irrigation projects. The Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, American Rivers and National Wildlife Federation sent a notice to NOAA in late August but rescinded it for 30 days after agreeing to take part in the talks.

The groups say that more water is needed from those storage reservoirs to augment flows for migrating salmon and steelhead that are listed under the Endangered Species Act. The water is put to many uses, including irrigation, municipal water supplies, recreation, resident fish habitat, as well as for flows for anadromous fish recovery.

"Given the significance and complexity of the issues we are facing, I felt we had a very productive series of meetings over the weekend," Crapo said. "I am very encouraged that we have identified several issues and discussed ways to deal with them over the next several days. Given the fact that this particular group of people has never before met around any kind of table to deal with these decades-old issues, we are making progress and doing so outside a courtroom."

Crapo expects the group to meet again within the next two weeks.

"What is important at this point is the commitment all sides have to talk and keep talking outside the courtroom. I will be working on this with the parties every day until our next general meeting which will occur sometime during the week of Oct. 6," he said.

According to background provided in the conservation groups' 60-day notice letter, the federal Bureau of Reclamation operates and maintains 10 irrigation projects in the Snake River basin above Hells Canyon and Brownlee Dam. These projects involve twenty-two major storage facilities as well as other smaller reservoirs and diversion works and irrigate an estimated 1.6 million acres.

The conservation groups, in their letter, challenge the legality and adequacy of NOAA Fisheries' 2001 Upper Snake River "biological opinion", a document intended to ensure that operation of the upper Snake River projects and dams does not threaten the survival of federally protected salmon and steelhead. In that biological opinion NOAA concluded that Bureau of Reclamation operation of the projects would not jeopardize the protected species. The two federal agencies were named as the potential targets of a lawsuit.

The conservation groups say the BiOp is faulty because it makes fish survival assumptions based on another NOAA opinion, for the lower Snake and Columbia river hydro operations, that has been declared illegal by a federal district court judge. The lower river BiOp remains in effect but is now being rewritten while the Upper Snake plan remains in effect through 2004. The conservation groups also contend that NOAA Fisheries failed to conduct adequate analysis in judging upper Snake River project biological impacts when it issued the BiOp.

The lower river or Federal Columbia River Power System BiOp calls for the Bureau to acquire water for in-stream use from Upper Snake River projects "to improve the likelihood of achieving spring and summer flow objectives at Lower Granite Dam."

One of the key issues discussed Saturday is the conservation groups' emphasis on action before next spring's juvenile fish migration begins. The notice letter's call for a reworking of the federal Upper Snake River BiOp said "Such steps would include, but not be limited to, ensuring that BOR makes timely and adequate water allocation decisions for the 2004 migration season that avoid harm to listed salmon and steelhead."

That caused a furor amongst farm and other water users groups, and others worried about the impact on the economy should all or part of those irrigated acres be dried up. So Crapo stepped in.

"It's obvious that Mike Crapo is personally committed" to avoiding litigation, said Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association and president of the Coalition for Idaho Water. "We share that goal."

While nothing was settled Saturday, Semanko and representatives of the environmental groups involved were cautiously optimistic. It is expected that discussions between the various entities involved will continue privately before they meet again en masse with Crapo again facilitating, probably on Oct. 9.

"It was quite an achievement just getting all of the issues out on the table," Semanko said of the first meeting.

Most urgent are issues related to 2004 operations. The conservation groups want more certainty about the provision of water for fish; the agriculture and business interests want certainly about the provision of water for crops.

"It behooves us to be talking to the irrigators" about how much water they would be willing to provide during 2004, said Justin Hayes of the ICL. The Bureau has purchased water over the years from willing sellers, with stated goal under the FCRPS BiOps of delivering 427,000 acre feet of water per year. Actual delivery varies depending on the amount of water available. The conservation groups point out that the BiOp flow targets at Lower Granite are rarely met in summer.

"It is necessary to talk about 2004. That's obviously the main focus for us but it needs to be broader than that," Semanko said of Saturday's discussions. Before long-term issues are settled, a closer look needs to be taken at the latest science related to the improved fish stock status and the benefits, or lack thereof, of flow augmentation, he added.

Semanko said that he was still a little uncertain about what the conservation groups are asking for in 2004 -- 427,000 acre feet of water, or enough water to meet flow targets. He said that this past summer an additional 38,000 acre feet per day would have been needed to meet the summer flow targets suggested in the NOAA BiOp. Drawing off that amount of water would have had the effect of drying up 1 million irrigated acres, Semanko said.

Still, both sides felt some sort of an agreement on a 2004 strategy is possible.

"I thought that was pretty fertile ground," said Bill Sedivy, of Idaho Rivers United. "We saw some potential for finding some common ground."

"Our objective is to restore salmon," not take water away from farms, Hayes said. The groups are willing to work to find solutions.

"We are committed to putting the resources into this that are required," Hayes said. Sedivy called the gathering "historic," at least to his knowledge.

"These groups hadn't gotten together before to talk about salmon and water," Sedivy said. All of those involved in the discussions lauded Crapo for his interest and his skills in mediating the discussions.

Sedivy said the groups were taking a "wait and see attitude" toward resending its notice later, a requirement under the ESA before a lawsuit can be filed. The groups would have to act soon after Oct. 12 if it is to expect to get any action from the court before the spring migration.

Barry Espenson
Crapo to Continue Facilitating Talks over Upper Snake Water Use
Columbia Basin Bulletin, October 3, 2003

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