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Commentaries and editorials

Environmental Groups Threaten Lawsuit
to Force More Water for Salmon

by N.S. Nokkentved
The Times-News, November 20, 1999

TWIN FALLS -- A threatened lawsuit says the federal government has violated environmental law by failing to send enough water down the Snake River to aid the migration of endangered salmon.

A portion of that water would come from southern and eastern Idaho.

Several environmental groups this week issued a notice of intent to sue federal agencies over what they say are violations of the Endangered Species Act and failure to ensure adequate flows in the Snake and Columbia rivers to avoid high salmon mortality.

The threat came only two days after National Marine Fisheries Service officials released a working paper designed to lay out options for recovering endangered Northwest salmon.

The groups say they will sue if the government doesn't take immediate action to resolve the problem, and that means taking more water from southern and eastern Idaho and eastern Oregon -- or breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River in southeastern Washington.

The groups -- which include Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association, Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center, Trout Unlimited and the Sierra Club -- say federal agencies have failed to improve water flows as ordered by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"While remedies are readily available, the one thing we cannot do is stand by and wait for the salmon to disappear," the notice says. The notice says the government has failed to change flood control operations, has failed to ask Canada for more water, has failed to halt illegal diversions and has failed to provide more water from the Snake River Basin.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation has been sending 427,000 acre-feet of water from southern Idaho down the river and releasing more than 1 million acre-feet of water from Dworshak Reservoir on the Clearwater River in northern Idaho.

"We met our obligations," said Rich Rigby of the bureau's Boise office. "We've provided the 427,000 acre-feet."

But that is not good enough, the notice says. The Fisheries Service in 1995 asked the bureau to secure additional water in the Snake River basin beyond the 427,000 acre-feet. But the bureau has not done so, the notice says.

Rigby said he was reluctant to comment further.

The bureau has proposed providing as much as 1.5 million acre-feet in addition to the 427,000 acre-feet it has been providing. But the bureau has not yet done so.

The groups said the lawsuit presents the government with a choice between increasing the amount of water taken from Idaho to boost river flows or breaching the four federal dams on the lower Snake River in southeastern Washington state.

Idaho Rivers United has not joined the letter of intent, but noted that the threatened lawsuits underscore the threat to southern Idaho's irrigation water.

The Idaho group hopes the issue can be resolved without a major effect on Idaho water users, executive director Bill Sedivy said.

"In fact, we would like to see Idaho water taken off the table in this discussion," Sedivy said. "The only way we are going to see that, however, is by bypassing the dams."

Federal officials say taking out the dams is not going to solve the salmon's plight, and other efforts will be necessary as well. But efforts to recover salmon are going to include more water from Idaho if the dams aren't breached.

"It's either dams or water," Sedivy said.

Officials say salmon can be recovered without breaching the dams but that will take more water from Idaho.

Northwest fisheries scientists say breaching the dams gives salmon their best chance at recovery.

Using another 1 million acre-feet of water or more to increase river flows for endangered salmon could cost up to 3,600 jobs, says a federal Bureau of Reclamation study.

The bureau predicts that in dry years, an additional 643,000 acres in the Snake River Basin could be dried up. The study predicts that in dry years agricultural production in the Snake River basin could be cut by as much as $243.7 million.

One acre-foot is enough water to cover one acre, one foot deep -- or 325,850 gallons. Federal reservoirs on the Snake River system upstream of Milner Dam can hold 4.1 million acre-feet.

A Fisheries Service study shows inconclusive benefits of flow augmentation for spring and summer chinook salmon, but the link is strong for fall chinook.

Idaho water users contend flow augmentation will not restore salmon runs.

N.S. Nokkentved
Environmental Groups Threaten Lawsuit to Force More Water for Salmon
The Times-News, November 20, 1999

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