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Drought Threatens Salmon
as Lemhi River Reaches 50-Year Low

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, April 23, 2004

Irrigators work with state to keep water flowing

SALMON -- Farmers have been up until late in the evening this last week to turn off their pumps so the last of this year's young salmon are flushed out of the Lemhi River.

The worst drought in more than 50 years threatened to dry up the river where Lewis and Clark first saw Pacific salmon when they crossed the Continental Divide into Idaho. But a cooperative effort by ranchers and the state has kept a trickle of water flowing enough that biologists believe salmon can begin their migration to the ocean.

"What we've got to do is get those salmon down a half mile," said R.J. Smith, a rancher and member of the irrigation district board. "We'll do everything necessary to save those fish."

The question is whether the effort from irrigators, who are getting money from the state for the water, is enough to meet the law.

Salmon and steelhead in Idaho are protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act, which also protects their habitat. If any of the fish are found to have died because of the diversion of water for irrigation, the irrigators could face prosecution under federal law.

The entire Snake River Basin is experiencing the fourth year of drought, making the problem on the Lemhi indicative of challenges facing salmon throughout the region this year. The Boise River watershed is one of the few relatively moist places.

Lemhi Pass, which Meriwether Lewis crossed into the Columbia watershed, usually is packed with snow until June. But this year, the first car an Oldsmobile crossed it April 7, said Viola Anglin, owner of the Tendoy Store near the river.

"There wasn't even mud on the tires," Anglin said.

In 2002, farmers signed an agreement with state and federal agencies that required them to keep the flows on the river at 25 cubic feet per second or higher between April 15 and June 30. In exchange, federal fisheries officials agreed not to prosecute farmers if a few salmon were found killed. But that agreement ran out in December.

Last week, as farmers began irrigating hay fields that feed more than 30,000 head of cattle in the valley, the flows in the river dropped to 10 cubic feet per second. Under state water law, Rick Sager, the watermaster for the irrigation district, would have had no choice but to dry up the stream because the farmers have priority rights to the water.

But state officials urged him to keep the flows coming until a new agreement could be reached. Federal fisheries officials, the state and farmers began a series of negotiations which are ongoing.

"We're making progress on getting agreeements in place," said David Mabe, Idaho habitat director for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "The irrigators have made good efforts to provide flows in the Lemhis."

Irrigators began flushing flows at night of up to 40 cubic feet per second, which are designed to wash the young fish down to the Salmon River. Farmers leased the water to the state, which is paying them not to irrigate temporarily.

"The state and the water users will work to find a solution to protect the fisheries resource consistent with the state water law," said Clive Strong, Idaho deputy attorney general.

But is it enough?

"That's a very difficult question biologically," Mabe said.

Tom Curet, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist, said most of the young salmon left the Lemhi last fall and spent the winter in the Salmon River before making the long migration to the sea. He was surprised so many smolts remained when they surveyed the low water stretch last week.

Another complicating factor is that steelhead have built nests in the low water stretch. If these redds dry up, they are treated like the killing of fish under the Endangered Species Act. NMFS has enforcement agents monitoring the situation as well.

But Smith doubts anything will happen as long as farmers and agencies continue talking.

"This drought had the potential to drive a wedge between us and the feds and now it's not going to happen," he said.

Laird Lucas, an attorney for Advocates for the West, which represents environmental groups suing farmers and the agencies over salmon and water, inspected the Lemhi last Wednesday as the flows were dropping.

The problem, he said, is that farmers should use pipes and advanced sprinkler systems instead of leaky ditches to deliver water to their crops.

"Even in a dry year, there should be enough water for irrigators and fish," Lucas said. "But we're still operating under these outmoded techniques that are very inefficient."

Historically, the Lemhi River was blocked by a power dam. When the dam was removed in 1957, the series of 85 irrigation diversions dried up the river and caused salmon to dead end in farmers' fields. But a cooperative effort by farmers in the 1960s to screen diversions and provide water restored the spring chinook population to more than 4,000 returning adults.

Additional dams were built downriver on the Columbia and Snake, forcing the fish to have to swim through eight dams twice. Numbers plummeted by the early 1990s. Only seven fish returned in 1994. But even before salmon were listed in 1992 as a threatened species, ranchers had begun a new cooperative effort to provide water to aid their migration.

This effort has helped. In 2001, more than 600 salmon returned. In 2002, when this year's smolts were hatched, about 270 chinook returned. Last year about 100 came back.

"I see this community trying to do what they can for fish," Curet said.

Rocky Barker
Drought Threatens Salmon as Lemhi River Reaches 50-Year Low
The Idaho Statesman, April 23, 2004

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