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Farmers Commit Water to Salmon

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, May 19, 2004

Irrigators make promise as part of Nez Perce deal

Idaho irrigators are taking extraordinary steps to find water they can lease to the federal government to help salmon in one of the worst droughts in 50 years.

Canal companies and irrigation districts serving more than 1.5 million acres of farms growing potatoes, wheat, barley, hay and other crops are taking steps to keep the federal Bureau of Reclamation from facing new restrictions to its dam operations on the Snake, Boise and Payette rivers under the Endangered Species Act. They also are trying to show good faith in their part of a commitment to supply 427,000 acre-feet of water annually for the sweeping Nez Perce water agreement announced May 15.

That amount of water 427,000 acre-feet is enough to keep Shoshone Falls near Twin Falls flowing at full-bore for about two and half days.

Tuesday, the Committee of Nine, which represents dozens of canal companies and irrigation districts from Ashton to the Magic Valley, told federal officials it would meet a goal to provide 3 percent of available water from 75,000 to 100,000 acre- feet this year to increase flows on the Snake River for migrating salmon. An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, the amount that would cover an acre of land with one foot of water. The water is released in the late summer to increase the flow of the Snake River below Hells Canyon and aid the migration of fall chinook salmon, protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The Bureau of Reclamation won't know until July whether it will reach its goal, which it has not done since 2000. But the decision by the Committee of Nine increases its chances.

"It's a real positive commitment," said Jerrold Gregg, manager of the Bureau's Snake River Area Office.

The 427,000-acre-foot annual goal is a pivotal component of the Nez Perce deal, in which the tribe would give up its claims to most of the flows in the Snake River Basin in exchange for salmon protections, $93 million, and federal land worth $7 million.

Changes in the leasing rules in the agreement will make it easier for the bureau to meet the 427,000- acre-foot goal in the future, Gregg said. Current rules give farmers preference to the water made available for leasing.

The deal would remove the agriculture preference, giving canal companies an incentive to lease their water to the bureau. That's because farmers pay only $2.95 an acre-foot for the stored water, while the bureau pays $14.55 in Water District 1.

It pays different rates elsewhere, up to $35 to $50 per acre foot, for water it leases from farmers who pump water out of the Snake River from Buhl to Murphy.

"The difference there is we are paying those people to dry up land," Gregg said.

The Committee of Nine's water will come from federal reservoirs on the Snake River above Milner Dam near Burley that are filled to only about 51 percent of their 4 million-acre-foot capacity this year. Other water would come from reservoirs on the Boise and Payette rivers.

Gregg is hopeful of getting enough from those sources, along with the pumpers on the Snake, to meet his 427,000-acre-foot goal. Since it purchased water from the Boise reservoirs last year, availability this year is dependent on the reservoirs filling.

"The wild card is the Boise," Gregg said. "If it keeps raining, we'll be close."

Albert Lockwood, chairman of the Committee of Nine, said the group had a long hard discussion before sticking to its commitment. But it is still dependent on farmers leasing their water voluntarily.

"It was pretty tough to do," Lockwood said. "There's a potential that some people could have their water shut off in July."

But they are taking the risk as a way of preventing the federal government or salmon advocates from confiscating their water under the authority of the Endangered Species Act.

Bert Bowler, a salmon biologist with Idaho Rivers United, an environmental groups that fights for salmon, applauded the bureau and the farmers for their efforts. His group worked with the Snake River pumpers and the bureau to get them more money and water.

But IRU has not joined supporters of the Nez Perce agreement and believes more needs to be done in the future.

"Going beyond 2004 is a whole new ball game," Bowler said. "We always said 427,000 is not enough."

The Committee of Nine is the policymaking body of Water District 1, which includes the Upper Snake River Valley from Ashton and runs through the Magic Valley to King Hill. The members serve as advisers to the watermaster, who administers delivery of water to each of the nine areas represented on the committee. The committee controls more than 4 million acre-feet of storage, making it the most powerful water interest group in the state, except perhaps for Idaho Power Co. Albert Lockwood of Northside Canal Co. in Jerome is the chairman.

Related Sites:
Water District 1

Rocky Barker
Farmers Commit Water to Salmon
The Idaho Statesman, May 19, 2004

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