Idaho Officials Leave Snake River Flows
by Nate Poppino
U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo called Friday for a collaborative effort to solve the problems plaguing Pacific Northwest salmon and said involved parties need to be flexible and explore all possible solutions.
As an example, he suggested discussing the pros and cons of breaching four lower Snake River dams - an idea that grabbed recent headlines, but one that Crapo has used in the past few years.
But Crapo and other Idaho officials have made it clear that one proposed salmon solution isn't negotiable: running more water from the Snake River out of the state to improve river conditions farther downriver.
The idea, one that has constantly worried Idaho water officials, showed up as one of several options that U.S. District Judge James Redden urged the federal government to consider in a May 18 letter regarding a pending court case over salmon recovery.
As expected, Idaho officials don't see it as necessary.
Speaking Monday to the Times-News, Crapo said Idaho's sovereignty over the allocation and use of its water must be protected. He said he would "strongly defend" the 2004 Nez Perce Agreement providing water from the upper Snake, itself the product of the type of negotiations he'd like to apply to the greater salmon debate.
"I personally believe that this issue is resolved," Crapo said.
In the same conversation, Crapo said a return to the negotiating table - a similar attempt to solve salmon issues fell apart soon after it started in 2003 - would produce better and more solid solutions for everyone in the long term.
But, he said, for that to be successful, all parties have to be willing to allow their ideas to be examined. That means, for example, exploring both breaching and not breaching the dams.
"The point is that when you collaborate, you must truly be willing to not only defend your ideas, but let others put their ideas on the table and defend theirs," he said.
Despite Redden's reference to "additional flow," water in the upper Snake doesn't seem immediately threatened.
Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association and spokesman for the Coalition for Idaho Water, noted that filings from environmental groups seeking more water from the Snake have stated any flows should be consistent with the Nez Perce Agreement.
But that hasn't kept officials from speaking out about protecting it - even Semanko said the arrangement is "very high" on his group's current priorities. Even if water is provided from below Hells Canyon, outside the area of the agreement, it's possible that such a demand could have some effect on the rest of the river system.
Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little told Obama administration officials last week that Idaho has already made a strong commitment to salmon recovery, citing the 487,000 acre-feet provided annually through the Nez Perce Agreement and an additional 2 million acre-feet provided through Dwor-shak Dam.
"This has a major impact on the economy of our state," Little said according to his prepared remarks. "Supporting (the latest federal salmon plan) comes with a price tag we are willing to pay because all of the region's sovereigns must sacrifice if we are to recover salmon and steelhead."
Assuming Crapo does assemble enough interests to debate the matter, flows would be but one possible topic of discussion. Both Little and Semanko tabbed reducing the number of fish harvested from the Columbia River as a possible way to improve salmon numbers.
And of course, the dams would come up. Idaho Rivers United, a group that backs breaching the dams, has already offered to support the talks.
Asked about Redden's mention of flows, group spokesman Greg Stahl said removing the dams may be one way to avoid a court demand for more Idaho water.
"Idaho water is one of the things that could be resolved by taking dams out of the river," Stahl said.
Crapo made it clear that he's committed to holding talks - whether it happens this year or years from now.
"I hope that there will be a willingness now to move forward," he said. "If not, I'll keep working."
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