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Idaho's Water-free Fields are Dream for Some, Nightmare for Us

by Rep. C. L. "Butch" Otter
The Idaho Statesman, September 15, 2003

The fall run of chinook salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers, protected under the Endangered Species Act, is forecast to be the fifth-largest since 1948. Meanwhile, Idaho lost 12,000 jobs from May through August and 4,200 last month alone.

Since March, about 9,300 people have given up even trying to find a job in Idaho.

Sounds like the fish are doing better than the people, doesn´t it?

But some don´t see it that way.

Environmentalists aren´t satisfied with the progress being made to restore the Northwest´s salmon and steelhead runs. So they´re threatening to sue the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to force the release of all the water stored in reservoirs -- water used by hundreds of thousands of people for irrigation, recreation, residential consumption, industry and everything else in the Snake River system above Hells Canyon.

In what would be a futile and scientifically unjustifiable attempt to improve conditions for migrating fish, extremists are willing to dry up 2 million acres of irrigated land in Idaho, put untold thousands out of work and crush the state´s economy just as it begins to emerge from recession.

Our friends at the Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation have granted the federal government a 30-day reprieve, thanks to Sen. Mike Crapo. But they are still vowing to reinstate their 60-day notice of intent to sue unless negotiations brokered by the senator are successful.

I applaud Crapo´s work toward finding a solution, and I wish all the parties involved good luck. However, the threat remains like a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. The economic growth fostered by Idaho´s water, and the prosperity that cities such as Boise continue to enjoy, cannot be sustained under such conditions of uncertainty.

The stated goal of the environmentalists is augmenting downstream flows, helping to flush smolts toward the sea with a rush of water all the way from the Upper Snake River Valley. What they´re really doing is holding Idaho and its water hostage. Despite claims to the contrary, the ransom is nothing less than breaching the four lower Snake River dams.

The idea is absurd. It would be laughable if it weren´t so serious, and dangerous.

There is nothing more precious or important to Idaho and its citizens than water. The Snake River system is the lifeblood of southern Idaho. The high desert would never have bloomed as it has without the 10 Bureau of Reclamation projects that are being targeted. They have enabled development of one of the richest, most productive agricultural areas in the world, and every one of us is a beneficiary.

The argument for sending all that water downstream for flow augmentation is disingenuous at best. The target summertime flow at eastern Washington´s Lower Granite Dam, for instance, is 50,000 to 55,000 cubic feet per second. The average flow there now during that 75-day period is about 31,000 cfs. An Idaho Department of Water Resources study found that more than 20 million acre-feet of water would have to be sent downstream to reach the target flow. There isn´t that much water in the entire reservoir system.

So what the environmental groups have done is set impossible conditions in a cynical attempt to force the issue rather than joining the region´s governors and many others in addressing habitat, hydropower, harvest and hatcheries, all the while keeping the lives and livelihoods of people in mind. Tactics that ignore that "human" factor should be unworthy of response. But with the Endangered Species Act and some of the opinions we´ve seen come out of federal courts, anything is possible.

It was just a little more than two years ago that something similar -- yet several orders of magnitude less extensive in scope -- befell irrigators in Oregon´s Upper Klamath River Basin. With drought already sapping supplies, a federal judge stopped water deliveries to farms in the Klamath Irrigation District so there would be enough flowing into Upper Klamath Lake for two endangered species of sucker fish.

Hundreds of farmers, dozens of families in related, agriculture-dependent businesses and some 225,000 acres of irrigated land were affected. The controversy made national headlines, but the impact was minuscule compared with what would happen across southern Idaho if the environmental groups carry out their misguided extortion scheme here.

Idahoans must make it clear that while we value salmon and steelhead runs and will continue working hard to protect them, we will not sacrifice what we and generations past have built at the altar of advocacy science and biological tyranny. The Endangered Species Act, as flawed a piece of public policy as ever there was, is being used as a tool by extremists to implement their vision of a people-free, job-free wilderness in the West. Their first step is making southern Idaho fields water-free. For them it´s a dream; for the rest of us, it would be a nightmare.

Rep. C. L. "Butch" Otter, R-Idaho, represents Idaho´s 1st Congressional District.
Idaho's Water-free Fields are Dream for Some, Nightmare for Us
The Idaho Statesman, September 15, 2003

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