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Commentaries and editorials

Why Should Idaho Water be Used
to Defend Washington State Dams?

by Former State Senator John Peavey of Carey Idaho
Comments before the House Resources Committee, February 23, 2005

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I come to you as a farmer-rancher and former state senator who spent most of my legislative career working for solutions to the water issues of the state. As early as 1976, I introduced S.B. 1400 that called for a moratorium of new water diversions along the lower Snake River. It got 12 votes. At that time few people understood how severe the problem would become.

I support the bill before you but strongly urge negotiations continue to address what I consider to be the critical issue: Why is Idaho water being used to defend four dams in Washington State?

Over 400,000 acre-feet of water owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is to be drained from the upper Snake River basin to flush young wild salmon downstream through these full dams. Flushing the fish to save the dams has been tried and failed for many years. The wild fish are still in serious decline.

It is extremely important to keep this water in Idaho if an economic Armageddon is to be avoided. We have over developed our deserts and over appropriated our water resources. Hundreds of thousands of acres of productive farmland could easily revert to sagebrush. The 400,000 acre feet of Bureau of Reclamation water should be used to quiet farmer verses farmer lawsuits. It is imperative that large amounts of mitigation and aquifer recharge water be found and found quickly.

The four Washington State dams are the problem. Our ranch had a U.S. Forest Service sheep allotment on Marsh Creek years ago. It was a major salmon spawning stream and tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. When I was young and was taking care of a band of sheep there in the 50’s and 60’s, I saw more salmon than I could count when they returned to spawn in their birthplace streams. Many riffles had five or six large fish. I can remember laying in the grassy undercut creek bank no more than two feet across and quietly stroking a giant fish. Back then there were 20 bands of sheep and several cattle allotments in the area, and lots and lots of fish.

After the four Snake River dams were built, the fish all but disappeared. Today there are no cow allotments and only one band of sheep in the Marsh Creek area and still there are also precious few fish. Clearly the grazing had nothing to do with the demise of the fish yet with the building of each successive dam, the numbers of fish returning each year has dwindled.

The solution is obvious. Take the dams down and you can save the fish and there will be no need for “flush” water from southern Idaho or Dworshak. Take the dams down and you can save the economy of the whole state and the farming economy of southern Idaho.

Perhaps there will be a need for further discussion with the Nez Perce tribe. But it is my understanding that if the fish are its primary interest, it would be to everyone’s benefit to remove the dams, see the fish return and save the water.

Back to the original questions, “why should Idaho water be used to defend Washington state dams? Why are Idaho’s people who caused none of the problem being asked to shoulder the entire burden of bringing the salmon back?

I asked these questions in a large water meeting of farmers last year and one of Idaho’s leading water experts responded that President Bush would not approve of breaching the dams. I was startled by his candor at the time. Perhaps if the issue has become so political, our own leadership should go to Washington, D.C. and remind the powers that be that Idaho is a red state and Washington State is a blue one.

History will not judge us kindly if we lose our farmers and our small towns, ruin the state’s economy and lose the salmon too. I am afraid that is where we are headed.

Clearly these goals are in the best interest of all parties to this agreement and should be a part of any final settlement. I urge you to consider this action.

Bottom line is pass this legislation but work for solutions that will truly save our farms, small towns and the fish.

John Peavey , Former State Senator, Carey Idaho
Why Should Idaho Water be Used to Defend Washington State Dams?
Comments before the House Resources Committee, February 23, 2005

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