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Lemhi Salmon Catch a Break

by Betsy Z. Russell
Spokesman Review, July 20, 2001

U.S., state officials join farmers, ranchers in announcing program

BOISE -- Farmers and ranchers in Idaho's Lemhi River Basin joined an array of state and federal officials Wednesday to announce more than $8 million worth of salmon recovery efforts, part of which include renting or buying out some of their irrigation rights.

The crowd in Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's office marked a sharp contrast with recent events 400 miles to the west, where angry farmers in Oregon's Klamath Falls area have wrenched open closed head gates in a bitter attempt to get back water they've lost to efforts to save fish.

"This is the way it should be done," a proud Kempthorne declared.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who joined the group by phone, called the move "an innovative blueprint for the conservation of habitat and native fish," and lavished praise on Kempthorne for bringing the different sides together. "This type of partnership is really a model for the future," Norton said.

Donna Darm, acting regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said: "This is a great day for fish, and it's a great day for Idaho. It could've been a terrible day."

Just a year ago, Darm said, the Lemhi River -- home to endangered chinook salmon, bull trout and steelhead -- was dry. "And there were a lot of dead fish." Her agency considered enforcement action.

But, she said, that would have touched off "water wars."

"Instead, we sat down and we talked, and we talked some more."

More than 16 agencies and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes were involved by the end in an effort coordinated by Kempthorne's office and his new office of species conservation. That office, headed by former Clearwater National Forest supervisor Jim Caswell, will oversee five major projects in the Lemhi River Basin this summer, including closing off irrigation diversions, modifying others, removing barriers to fish passage, reconnecting creeks and more. The Bonneville Power Administration will provide $8 million for the work.

"There are alternatives to putting people out of business, and these projects are shining examples of those," Lemhi basin rancher R.J. Smith said. "I hope that we all understand what is at stake here. We have people's livelihoods, we have private property, we have private property rights. Those things are protected in America, and if we are going to take 'em away from people, they have to be compensated."

Dan Skinner of the conservation group Idaho Rivers United watched quietly from the back of the room. He said his group asked repeatedly to participate in the negotiations, but was rebuffed.

"Certainly we welcome any water being returned to the Lemhi River," Skinner said later. "However, I think it is important to recognize that doing habitat work on the Lemhi River is not going to restore Idaho's salmon. It might give them a nice homecoming if they make it. But if we ignore the lower Snake River, we are ignoring the problem."

Of the $8 million, about $1 million will purchase a conservation easement from an irrigator who will convert 740 acres of irrigated land to dry pasture. The water that would have been used to irrigate that land will instead be used to increase river flows. Other improvements will come from moving diversion points on the Lemhi and Salmon rivers, converting inefficient flood-irrigation systems to sprinklers, and other changes.

The projects were boosted when Idaho lawmakers unanimously passed a bill this year to set a minimum stream flow of 35 cubic feet per second for the Lemhi River, with the water to come from a "water bank" made up of water rights that irrigators would rent out.

About 25 irrigators have given up all or part of their water rights for this year since the new law took effect in April, said Karl Dreher, director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

The money for those water-rights rentals, about $182,000, came from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and eliminated irrigation on 830 acres after July 1. The payments will happen again whenever there's a dry year.

Kempthorne said the passage of that law was seen by federal agencies as "evidence that Idaho was serious," and helped the state win the $8 million in BPA funding.

Steve Wright, acting BPA administrator, said, "We are using Idaho as a model for the other states. ... If you can work with us, we can create these kinds of opportunities."

Wright said in this drought year, BPA's focus is "to minimize the harm that is done to fish."

But the Idaho projects go further by making some permanent changes that will improve fish habitat, he said. "These projects will enhance the fisheries resource in Idaho for the long term."

House Speaker Bruce Newcomb said, "It's a really remarkable contrast if you look at what's happened here versus what's happened in Klamath Falls. I think that's what the farmers and ranchers were looking at if we were not able to get a negotiated solution."

Newcomb called the Klamath crisis "an example of what can happen when everybody gets crossways," and praised Idaho irrigators for taking what he called "a fearful step for them."

State Sen. Don Burtenshaw, R-Terreton, who represents Lemhi County, agreed. "One rancher told me, `Burtenshaw, you can mess with anything that I got, but don't mess with my water,"' he said. "You know that these ranchers have given up (a lot), but they've been compensated for it."

Kempthorne said the partnership forged between the federal agencies, the state and the irrigators follows guidelines laid out in an earlier salmon recovery plan signed by four western governors, including Washington's. The plan called for pursuing various solutions short of breaching four lower Snake River dams.

Said Kempthorne, "We said we were serious about the recovery of salmon -- this is evidence."

Betsy Z. Russell
Lemhi Salmon Catch a Break
Spokesman Review, July 20, 2001

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