Water Negotiations Fall Apartby Kathleen O'Neil
Idaho Falls Post Register, November 8, 2003
Conservationists say they want more input;
irrigators say activists broke their pledge
Conservation groups announced Friday they won't continue talking about salmon recovery and water use in the Snake River Basin and won't rule out future litigation.
Although they have no immediate plans to file a new lawsuit, conservationists say they can't continue the talks led by Sen. Mike Crapo while negotiations involving some of the same issues as part of the Snake River Basin Adjudication carry on without their input, said Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, one of the conservation groups.
"We appreciate the senator's efforts to bring parties to the table to discuss salmon recovery, and we pledge to continue working with the senator and others to find common ground on salmon issues," Bill Sedivy, director of Idaho Rivers United, said in a written statement. "However, a negotiation cannot work, or be fair, if some of the parties involved are working to resolve some of the same key issues in a separate, confidential forum."
A judge ruled that only those who hold water rights can be a party in that case, excluding the environmental groups, and leaving the state, federal government, tribes and water users to negotiate Snake River Basin water use and rights.
Crapo has no power to reopen the Snake River Basin Adjudication talks, said the senator's spokesman Lindsay Nothern, and while it's probably not a deal-breaker, it may take a resolution of those talks or of other litigation to bring the parties back to the table.
Farmers and irrigators are unhappy about the conservation groups' participation in an on-going lawsuit over salmon protection and water use in the Lower Snake and the Columbia Rivers.
A Portland, Ore., judge found that the federal agencies' operating plans for the rivers, which must comply with the Endangered Species Act, were not adequate. The U.S. District Court judge also required new boundaries for the plans, which had only included the Snake River as far as Lewiston.
When the parties could not agree on the area to be covered, the judge asked the parties to file briefs stating their positions and said he'd choose the proper boundaries for the plan.
Idaho Rivers United and several other conservation groups filed a brief last week requesting that the Upper Snake River be considered part of that operating plan, arguing that flows above the dams affect downstream salmon, Ford said.
Water users now accuse the conservation groups of breaking their pledge to avoid new litigation.
"By attempting to insert the Upper Snake projects into the ongoing litigation, the environmental groups have undermined the negotiations previously organized by Senator Crapo," said Norm Semanko, president of the Coalition for Idaho Water in a written statement.
The state of Idaho, federal agencies, and other parties are also expected to file their briefs by the Thanksgiving deadline.
Crapo said he was disappointed by the groups' action, particularly since early talks had been so productive.
"As long as the plaintiffs pursue a litigation strategy, we will be forced to aggressively defend Idaho's water, and we will do just that," he said in a written statement. "The negotiation option must remain available, and I stand ready to resume this important process when the time is right."
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