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Choosing Irrigators Over Dams

by J. Robb Brady
Post Register, March 7, 2000

There will be a lot of talk at tonight's salmon hearings about southern Idaho irrigation water much of it faulty.

This region's agricultural industry and Idaho's political leadership are dead set against breaching four dams on the lower Snake River. Breaching is among the options the federal government is considering to save salmon. The Army Corps of Engineers will explain the alternatives beginning at 5 p.m. at the Shilo Inn in Idaho Falls.

At the core of the opposition to dam breaching is this fear: Once the four Lower Snake River dams are removed to preserve imperiled salmon runs, irrigation water also will be threatened.

But how realistic is that fear?

No responsible environmental group advocates taking southern Idaho irrigation water to save fish. Idaho Rivers United - one of the first environmental groups to call for breaching - again emphasized this week that it opposes taking any southern Idaho irrigation water if the dams are removed. If breaching requires more water, it will come from Dworshak Reservoir near Orofino. Dworshak produces electricity and a recreational reservoir, not irrigation water.

Ironically, breaching foes ignore credible signs that southern Idaho irrigation water could be threatened by the very dams they want to maintain.

That's because federal agencies can accelerate the river's flow - which is vital to healthier fish runs - either by breaching dams or by flushing more water down river.

Idaho is already giving up 427,000 acre-feet of water annually to increase Snake and Columbia River flows to move salmon smolts to the ocean. If the dams aren't breached, more water will follow. The National Marine Fisheries Service repeatedly has promised to seek another 1 million acre-feet of upper Snake River water for salmon - if the dams remain in place.

Groups like the Idaho Water Users Association look past that fact.

Instead, they and Idaho's political leaders want to concentrate only on the other options in the federal recovery package. These are restoring habitat, modifying the dams, restricting commercial fish harvests and changing hatchery operations.

Unquestionably, these will help fish survival. But without dam removal, they will require greater sacrifice from Idaho's resource industries.

Ranchers, for example, will have to deal with fencing along streams, headgate screening and grazing cutbacks in critical areas.

Idahoans should think for themselves. A good role model is Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. Last month, he broke ranks with his fellow Northwest politicians by saying dam removal is the best choice for the region, both economically and environmentally.

"If not dam breaching, what?" Kitzhaber asked. "And if they (policy makers) have no answer for that other than 'let's conduct another study,' they should have the courage to stand up and say what that really means: Salmon aren't worth it."

Southern Idaho farmers have every right to their irrigation water. But they are making a grave gamble by single-mindedly supporting the four dams. They are betting that a nation faced with the imminent extinction of a treasured species will honor state water rights rather than preserve that species.

If and when Congress finally acts on the salmon issue, this region ultimately could lose.

J. Robb Brady
Choosing Irrigators Over Dams
Post Register, March 7, 2000

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