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Commentaries and editorials

Letter Tells of State Offer
to Give Snake Water for Salmon

by Dan Hansen
Spokesman Review, July 11, 2000

State officials deny reference in federal document is offer

Contrary to the state's oft-repeated position, the federal government says Idaho is willing to negotiate a long-term commitment to provide Snake River water for salmon.

A federal document unintended for public release provides the first glimpse of what the state might be willing to give up to end two long-standing water claims that could cripple Idaho's agricultural industry.

It's unclear how federal officials responded to the offer, although they have said in the past that they would need far more water for salmon than the amount Idaho offers. State officials who would comment at all said it really wasn't even an offer.

"The letter was not written by the state of Idaho nor does it reflect the position of the state of Idaho," said Mark Snider, press secretary for Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

But that contradicts the two-page letter, written by Will Stelle, regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, and Rob Anderson, a top-level attorney for the U.S. Department of Interior. The undated letter outlined a "Snake River flow augmentation package offered by state parties" on March 6.

According to the letter, the state would give up no more water than the federal government already buys for flow augmentation, as water left in the river for the sake of salmon is called.

But instead of cutting off flow augmentation at the end of this year, the state would allow the annual flow of 427,000 acre feet to continue for 20 years, as long as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation can find irrigators willing to sell the water.

That sounds innocuous enough. But the Idaho Legislature has only reluctantly allowed irrigators to sell any water for salmon restoration, starting in 1992. Many irrigators and small-town officials have criticized the policy, saying that every time a farmer sells his water instead of irrigating crops, farm-related businesses suffer.

"Idaho can ill afford to squander its precious water on unconfirmed theories," said then-Gov. Phil Batt in 1995.

The following year, the Legislature passed a resolution saying flow augmentation does not help salmon.

Nothing has changed in the four years since, said Jim Yost, Kempthorne's adviser on natural resource issues.

"We've requested and will continue to request that the benefits be proven" before the Legislature again approves the release of water, said Yost.

The debate over flow augmentation is part of the much larger discussion of who has rights to water flowing through Idaho.

In 1987, after decades of bickering between users, the state started the Snake River Basin Adjudication process to sort out the various claims.

Among the claims is one from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for more water at the Deer Flats National Wildlife Refuge near Boise. Providing that water for wildlife would mean irrigating fewer acres upstream from the refuge, according to Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association.

The Deer Flats claim is dwarfed by one filed by the Nez Perce in 1993. The tribe demanded the equivalent of all the water that was in the Snake in 1855, when the tribe signed treaties that guaranteed the right to fish for salmon.

The tribal claim could have dried up thousands of farms in southern Idaho, as well as portions of Utah and Nevada. In 1997, the tribe offered to drop the claim if irrigators would support a proposal to breach the four Snake River dams in Washington. The offer was rejected, and the tribe filed suit over its water rights claim.

In May 1999, Idaho District Court Judge Barry Wood ordered parties in the Nez Perce suit to try to solve the case through mediation with Duke University law professor Francis McGovern.

The judge ordered that any offers made during that mediation remain confidential. For that reason, McGovern and officials for the state, the federal agencies, the tribe and the irrigators association have refused most requests for comment about specifics of the negotiations.

The Spokesman-Review received the federal letter addressed to McGovern as part of a Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to Snake River salmon recovery.

"The release of this letter ... was a plain old clerical mistake," Stelle said Monday. "We hope that this inadvertent mistake doesn't damage the will of the parties to continue their discussions."

According to the letter, the state offered flow augmentation on the condition that the Deer Flat and Nez Perce claims are dropped.

Although he wouldn't comment on any proposed offers from any agencies participating in the mediation, McGovern cautioned against reading too much into any one document.

"Documents don't necessarily reflect the entire scope of the negotiations nor the evolutionary aspects of the negotiations," he said.

Idaho is not alone in questioning the benefit of flow augmentation. Officials from other states, including the Washington Department of Ecology, have said that the Snake River dams in Washington slow the river so dramatically that they negate most benefits from increased flows.

Environmentalists agree that flow augmentation is a poor substitute for breaching the four dams. But if the dams aren't breached, then Idaho will have to give up far more water to help salmon than it already does, said Scott Bosse, staff conservation scientist for Idaho Rivers United.

In fact, the National Marine Fisheries Service in 1995 called for Snake River water releases of 1 million acre feet, in addition to the 427,000 acre feet already required.

In February, groups representing fishermen and environmentalists filed suit against the federal government for not following that mandate.

Idaho officials say providing another 1 million acre feet would end irrigation on 800,000 acres.

Environmentalists counter that irrigators could get by with less water if they used it more efficiently.

Further, environmentalists say, farmers wouldn't have to give up any of the water they now use if the government would breach the four dams.

However, federal agencies involved in salmon recovery have not given any indication that Idaho could keep its water if the dams were breached.

The fisheries service has said that breaching the dams alone would not be enough to restore endangered runs, but has not spelled out what additional steps -- other than habitat restoration -- would be needed.

Kempthorne, the Idaho Legislature and the irrigators association all oppose breaching.

Dan Hansen
Letter Tells of State Offer to Give Snake Water for Salmon
Spokesman Review, July 11, 2000

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