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Sen. Crapo Wades into Water Dispute

by Tribune and Associated Press
Lewiston Tribune, September 12, 2003

U.S. Sen. Michael Crapo is trying to settle a water dispute in the Upper Snake River basin that threatens to derail collaborative talks on protecting the Owyhee Canyonlands and the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains.

Crapo has asked environmental groups and Idaho water users to come to the table for negotiations rather than resort to the courts.

The environmentalists Thursday agreed to withdraw for 30 days their notice of intent to sue the government for what they say is a failure to protect threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead. In turn the water users group agreed to stop attempting to derail negotiations over new wilderness area designation.

Idaho Rivers United, the Idaho Conservation League, American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation last month announced a 60-day notice of intent to sue over alleged U.S. Bureau of Reclamation violations of the federal Endangered Species Act by not ensuring enough water from the upper Snake River to aid migrating salmon downstream.

In response, Idaho irrigation interests called on their resource allies to walk out of unrelated talks that could lead to additional wilderness protection for Idaho lands the environmentalists' cherish.

Conservationists, resource groups and local governments have been negotiating over protection for the southwestern canyonlands and central Idaho mountains -- areas that have eluded agreement on protection for more than a decade.

Norm Semanko, president of the Idaho Water Coalition, told farmers, ranchers and local officials Monday to stop wilderness negotiations. The proposed lawsuit threatens to dry up 2 million acres of Idaho farmland and devastate Idaho's economy, he said.

Crapo urged the environmentalists to shelve the suit and the water users to return to the wilderness discussions, offering to provide the forum for resolving the dispute.

"I do agree with the concern raised about the serious threat to Idaho's water," the Idaho Republican said. "We should resolve this by bringing people to the table."

In a Thursday letter to Crapo, Bill Sedivy of Idaho Rivers United and Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League said their groups would withdraw their notice for 30 days.

"Our overriding concern is to provide salmon and steelhead critically needed help, including water, at a time when the Bush administration and its agencies are failing to deliver their promised measures for salmon, virtually across the board," the two wrote.

Semanko said the coalition was cautiously optimistic about Thursday's news, but credited public opposition for forcing the environmental announcement. But the water group contends the public outcry "forced them to back away from what was widely perceived as little more than eco-extortion."

However, environmentalists said they shelved the suit out of respect to Crapo and said the reason they filed the 60-day notice was to bring people to the table. They dismissed Semanko's contention that they caved to public pressure.

"I think Norm meant it as a real serious threat but I don't' think it had the sort of buy-in from the broader community he was hoping for," said Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League.

They will resume the suit if the negotiations fail.

"Hopefully these talks will bear fruit and resolve issues," said Sedivy. "We also have to be in a position to get salmon what they need for the 2004 migration season."

Semanko said any future discussions must include broad issues, such as habitat improvement and more water storage opportunities. He called the practice of flow augmentation to speed young salmon through the Lower Snake River a failed experiment.

The Custer County Farm Bureau chapter this week withdrew its support for potential legislation exchanging economic development funding for wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds, said Rod Evans, the chapter president.

Fred Grant, a Nampa attorney moderating the Owyhee Initiative, said ranchers and local officials are still seeking a resolution there.

Tribune and Associated Press
Sen. Crapo Wades into Water Dispute
Lewiston Tribune, September 12, 2003

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