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Commentaries and editorials

Idaho Can't Afford to Ignore Salmon Realities

by Scott Bosse, Idaho Rivers United
Idaho Statesman, July 3, 1999

This year, Idaho has a historic opportunity to choose the destiny of its fast-disappeariing salmon runs and its precious water. If we heed the best scinece and play our cards right, we can keep salmon in the Salmon river, protect southern Idaho irrigation water and secure a bright economic future for both southern and northern Idaho

But there is a cost. The lower Snake River dams must go.

Unfortunately, some politicians and special interest groups in Idaho are playing a high stakes game that may score points with their constituents but ultimately could cost us both our salmon and our water. Like the proverbial ostrich that sticks its head in the sand, the Idaho Waters Users Association recently launched a campaign taking a firm stand against removing the lower Snake dams or using Idaho water for salmon flows. That leaves extinction for salmon as the only option.

Not only would extinction leave us morally bankrupt, it would saddle taxpayers with a multi-billion dollar debt that would be owed to Northwest Indian tribes as compensation for violating treaty rights.

The water users allege the federal government is out to steal Idaho's water regardless of whether the lower Snake dams are breached. Furthermore, they accuse salmon advocacy groups of intentionally deceiving farmers by telling them they can best protect their water by supporting dam removal. Finally, they distort the truth by saying the science is inconclusive.

They are dead wrong on all counts.

First, the primary justification for flow augmentation is to help speed juvenile salmon through the reservoirs created by the lower Snake dams. Flows are also used to cool the reservoirs during summer, when water temperatures reach lethal levels for migrating salmon. If the dams are bypassed, the need to increase water velocity and cool the reservoirs would be drastically reduced.

In a Speakers Corner commentary on June 23, Sherl Chapman of the Idaho Water Users Association argues that bypassing the dams does nothing to eliminate the call for Idaho water. He cites several sources, including the National Marine Fisheries Service's A-Fish Appendix. But the A-Fish Appendix doesn't support Chapman's claims. Instead, it says the biological benefits resulting from restoration could offset the need for flow augmentation during the spring migration period and summer flow augmentation for fall chinook may not be needed.

While Chapman is correct in saying there are no salmon recovery options on the table that call for no Idaho water to be used, he conveniently omits the fact that nowhere in the documents he cites are there proposals to bypass the dams and take more water from Idaho. The only proposals that call for more southern Idaho water are those that keep the dams in place. Those proposals call for another 1 million to 3 million acre-feet of water from the upper Snake basin.

If farmers and irrigators want to keep southern Idaho water in southern Idaho, the only sure way to do that is to include such a provision in a congressional bill to de-authorize the lower Snake dams. That way, Idahoans will get their salmon and steelhead back, and irrigators will keep their water without fear of a governmen takeway.

But make no mistake, if the dams stay, the feds will condemn our water if necessary because science clearly show that flow augmentation helps fall chinook salmon.

By playing an active role in brokering the deal that removes the dams, our elected leaders could also ensure that northern Idaho will receive millions of dollars in mitigation money that could be put towards much-needed improvements in rail and highway infrastructure.

Or, of course, we could just stick our head in the sand and pray the federal government chooses a salmon recovery plan that doesn't touch the dams or Idaho's water. But I wouldn't bet the farm on it.

Scott Bosse - conservation scientist with Idaho Rivers United
Idaho Can't Afford to Ignore Salmon Realities
Idaho Statesman - July 3, 1999

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