Many People Turn Out to Hear,
by N.S. Nokkentved
TWIN FALLS -- Not since the federal government proposed to build a plutonium refinery in eastern Idaho in the late 1980s have so many folks turned out to listen and voice their opinions at a public hearing here.
More than 550 people attended a public hearing Wednesday evening on federal efforts to recover endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead.
People started lining up well before 5 p.m. to sign up to speak. By the time the hearing got started, 141 people had signed up. Most of those who spoke early in the evening urged federal officials to breach four federal dams on the lower Snake River to help recover the fish.
A panel of federal officials were in town to hear comments on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental study on passage improvements for salmon in the lower Snake River in southeastern Washington. And they heard comments on a study by nine federal agencies -- the All-H Paper -- that lays out recovery options for endangered fish throughout the Columbia Basin, not just the Snake River.
Most people just wanted to voice their opinions about the most high profile issues of salmon recovery -- the proposal to breach four federal dams on the lower Snake River and the possibility of using more Idaho irrigation water to help migrating fish.
Some people suspect their comments mean little. Federal officials will compile comments only on the adequacy of the studies, on anything they may have overlooked. They won't consider whether people are simply for or against a particular option.
But the decision on the fate of the four dams rests with Congress. And congressional aides report the results of the hearings to the Idaho delegation members, who will consider the number of comments on both sides along with other factors, said Charles Barnes, aide for U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
Laverne Bronco, of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes at Fort Hall, reminded federal officials of treaties with Indian tribes, In those treaties, the tribe gave up a portion of their lands in exchange for the rights to fish for salmon.
Bronco said the Shoshone-Bannock fear that without breaching the dams, the salmon won't recover. Salmon are a cultural and spiritual centerpiece for the tribes.
"We're losing our tradition. We're losing our culture. We're losing our fish," Bronco said.
Several environmentalists favored breaching but opposed using any Idaho irrigation water to increase flows through the reservoirs behind the four dams. They said if the dams are not breached, using more water from Idaho is the most likely alternative.
"The cross hairs are on Idaho water," said Kent Laverty of the Idaho Wildlife Federation.
Opponents of breaching say taking out the dams would affect the Lewiston area economy and raise power rates for some; the results of breaching the dams are uncertain, and the science doesn't justify the risk.
Several irrigators spoke out against using Idaho water for flow augmentation citing the potentially devastating effects on agriculture in drought years. That could dry up as many as 600,000 acres and result in economic losses of $430 million annually.
They said there is little evidence to support the benefit of flow augmentation.
"The very future of southern Idaho depends on stored water for drought protection," said Dave Erikson of Buhl, a member of the Idaho Water Resources Board.
Outside the long room, interest groups and federal agencies displayed information about a variety of issues and aspect of salmon recovery. Most viewpoints were well represented, and representatives provided information and answered questions.
Meeting organizers, in an apparent effort to ensure a civil meeting, had posted signs on the doors of the meeting room banning signs and posters in the meeting.
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