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Farmers, Salmon Advocates Duel

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, September 5, 2003

Irrigators say release of reservoir water could dry up crops

Idaho farm and irrigation groups are warning salmon advocates to drop the threat of a lawsuit they say could devastate Idaho´s economy.

The Coalition for Idaho Water said environmental groups should withdraw a 60-day notice to sue filed a week ago against federal dam operators on the Snake River in Idaho and Wyoming for violating the Endangered Species Act.

If the environmental groups sue and win, the federal agencies could be forced to release water from storage reservoirs such as Lucky Peak to help salmon, said the coalition, which represents irrigation agriculture groups like the Idaho Potato Growers.

That could dry up hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland, reduce supplies for urban residents and industry, hurt water quality and even threaten flows for boaters and other recreationists, said Norm Semanko, Idaho Water Users Association executive director.

“These environmental groups are attempting to manipulate the legal system and use the Endangered Species Act to destroy Idaho´s economy,” said Frank Priestly, Idaho Farm Bureau president.

“Certainly, that´s not our intent,” said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, one of the groups that threatened to sue. “Our intent is to get salmon the water they need in 2004.”

Sedivy urged the farm groups to use their influence to force federal officials to come to the table and resolve the legal issues.

Semanko, noting that a legal victory could hurt many river businesses like rafters and kayak companies, said Sedivy and environmentalists should reconsider the overall effects of emptying reservoirs for salmon.

“If they really don´t want our water, they should withdraw the 60-day notice,” Semanko said.

At issue is 427,000 acre-feet of water, enough to keep Shoshone Falls flowing for two days at high flows, which Idaho has committed to flush down the Snake River from the storage reservoirs to aid salmon migration. The Bureau of Reclamation was able to lease enough water to meet that target in all but one year during the 1990s. In the drought conditions since 2000, it has been unable to lease enough water to meet its goal.

To provide 427,000 acre-feet in drought years, irrigation groups estimate 425,000 acres of Idaho land would have to be dried up at an annual loss of $49 million to the state´s economy.

Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League, one of the groups that filed the notice, said the farm groups´ concerns are justified because the federal government is operating the dams illegally and environmentalists have a good chance of winning on the merits of the case.

“The status quo is harming the salmon and the families who depend on the fish,” said Hayes, ICL program director.

Specifically, the salmon advocates say Reclamation´s biological opinion, a document that explains how the agency protects endangered salmon, is out of date and inadequate. They threatened to sue Reclamation and National Marine Fisheries Service.

The biological opinion, last completed in 2001, was to have been in place for only one year. It was extended without major new analysis, Hayes said.

Reclamation already plans to consult with the fisheries service to rewrite it in 2005, said Bill McDonald, the agency´s Northwest Region director in Boise. He said his agency is working on a response to the notice of intent.

“We´re not just going to let the 60-day notice lay on the shelf,” McDonald said. “Multiple parties need to scratch their heads to see if they can come to a solution within the law.”

Idaho Water Coalition members include the Idaho Dairymen´s Association, J.R. Simplot Co., the Committee of Nine, the Idaho Food Processors Association, the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, the Idaho Aquaculture Association, the Potato Growers of Idaho, the Idaho Cattle Association, the Idaho Grain Producers, the Idaho Water Users Association and other groups.

The environmental groups who filed the notice include American Rivers, the ICL, Idaho Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation.

Ultimately, Semanko said environmentalists are blackmailing Idaho farmers to get them to support breaching four federal dams on the Snake River in Washington.

Sedivy said it´s not blackmail. But for Idaho there is a clear choice.

“The scientists are telling us flow augmentation is one of the things we can do if we are not going to remove the Snake River dams,” he said.

Rocky Barker
Farmers, Salmon Advocates Duel
The Idaho Statesman, September 5, 2003

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