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Lemhi Pact Aims to Protect Salmon

by Rocky Barker and Paul Larmer
Idaho Statesman, July 19, 2001

Farmers and officials agree to increase flows

State and federal officials signed an agreement with farmers to ensure the Lemhi River doesn't dry up and block migrating salmon from their spawning grounds.

The Bonneville Power Administration committed $7.9 million of electric ratepayers' money to fund the projects that will increase flows in the Lemhi and other Salmon River tributaries. The pact establishes a voluntary 21 cubic feet per second minimum stream flow on the Lemhi and a water bank, which allows farmers to lease water for the fish.

"These are local projects and local partnerships that will benefit the entire Pacific Northwest," Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said Wednesday.

However, a science panel has raised doubts about the benefits of three of the projects, and environmentalists say they aren't as important as breaching four Lower Snake River dams in Washington.

Salmon are a physical manifestation of the Pacific Northwest. They still provide economic benefits to fishing communities and spiritual sustenance to the Northwest's Indian tribes.

For more than a decade, Lemhi River farmers have voluntarily left water in the river and fenced off grazing land to help endangered chinook salmon.

Despite these efforts, a portion of the river dried up in 2000, and federal fish managers threatened to bring criminal charges under the Endangered Species Act. The Western Watersheds Project also has filed four lawsuits and told 140 other landowners in the Salmon River Basin it intends to sue them to force them to screen diversions and reduce water use.

Initially, the National Marine Fisheries Service wanted a minimum stream flow of 60 cfs for the salmon. The Idaho Legislature approved a 35 cfs minimum stream flow this year and a water bank that allows farmers to dry up lands and lease the water to the state. This year 830 acres were dried up to ensure the Lemhi would have at least 21 cfs.

Bill Hogarth, acting administrator of NMFS, the agency that protects endangered salmon, said the agreement helps fish this year and in 2002 and gives all sides time "to craft a long-term solution that provides the level of assurances needed by both farmers and fish.

"This is an important step forward in the effort to provide safe fish passage flows," he said.

In addition to the BPA funds, state and local agencies will match an additional $700,000 for projects to be carried out by the new Idaho Office of Species Conservation.

The five projects include:

The Independent Scientific Review Panel of the Northwest Power Planning Council was critical of several of the projects. The relocation of a diversion from the Lemhi to the Salmon, the panel said, "could result in unintended negative consequences."

The Hawley Creek project has good aspects, the panel said, but the cost of the irrigation system may approach the value of the land.

The panel said the Morgan Creek project had long-term benefits for salmon and bull trout, but like the other two projects it was not recommended for funding.

"This is just another handout to uneconomic ranching and farming in central Idaho," said Jon Marvel, director of the Western Watersheds Project.

Marvel also criticized the agreement because there is no guarantee the water will be there when the salmon need it. Unlike Washington and Oregon, Idaho water law does not allow farmers to sell their priority water right for in-stream flows. The Lemhi in-stream flow approved by the Legislature is a junior right, allowing all other water users to divert their water first.

"It's pure speculation when someone says the water will be there every year," Marvel said.

Tom Curet, Idaho Department of Fish and Game regional biologist in Salmon, said ranchers like R.J. Smith, who personally helped put the agreement together, have time and again given up water for their crops to help salmon with no compensation. This year, 200 to 300 salmon are expected to spawn in the Lemhi and its tributaries.

"These guys have been so proactive," Curet said. "They don't need a hammer over their heads to help salmon. They just need to know what the problem is so they can solve it."

Smith, a representative of the Lemhi Irrigation District in Salmon, said the agreement shows there are alternatives to putting people out of business to save salmon.

"This agreement reflects one fundamental point," Smith said. "That the involvement of local communities is key to finding long-term, sustainable solutions,"

Idaho Rivers United chided Kempthorne for calling the agreement collaborative when it was left out of the negotiations. It and Idaho Steelhead and Salmon Unlimited said though they welcomed the projects, they questioned the long-term value for salmon.

"We could spend billions on improving habitat there and still not recover Idaho's salmon," said Dan Skinner, of Idaho Rivers United. "Until we address the lower Snake River, we are ignoring the problem."

Rocky Barker
Lemhi Pact Aims to Protect Salmon
Idaho Statesman, July 19, 2001

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