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Salmon Dispute Threatens Talks on Owyhees

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, September 11, 2003

White Clouds protection also could be at stake

A dispute over endangered salmon and Idaho's water threatens to derail collaborative talks on protecting the Owyhees and the Boulder-White Clouds mountains.

Four environmental groups filed a legal claim against federal dam operators in an effort to get more water sent down the Snake River to aid migrating salmon. In response, Idaho irrigation interests have called on their allies to walk out of unrelated talks that could lead to additional wilderness protection for Idaho lands the environmentalists' cherish.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, has urged the environmentalists to drop the threat of a suit and told water users not to kill the Owyhee and Boulder-White Clouds discussions.

If the two sides put down their swords, Crapo has offered to provide a forum to seek resolution of the salmon and water dispute.

"I do agree with the concern raised about the serious threat to Idaho's water," Crapo said. "We should resolve this by bringing people to the table."

Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, said the groups are seriously considering Crapo's offer.

"We are thrilled he is working to try to bring parties to the table, and we hope to be able to give him his answer Thursday," Sedivy said.

Norm Semanko, president of the Idaho Water Coalition, said Idaho water users are willing to talk with the environmental groups, but not as long as they are holding a gun to the head of Idaho's economy.

"Until that threat is removed, there can be no mutual exchange of viewpoint," said Semanko, whose organization represents agriculture organizations, businesses and canal companies.

Semanko told farmers, ranchers and local officials Monday to stop negotiations with the Idaho Conservation League and Idaho Rivers United, two of the groups that filed a notice of their intent to sue. The proposed lawsuit threatens to dry up 2 million acres of Idaho farmland and decimate Idaho's economy, he said.

"Until this threat to Idaho water is removed, they should leave the table," Semanko said. "Those issues pale next to draining all the water out of Idaho."

The two Idaho environmental groups, along with American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation, filed a 60-day notice in August claiming the Bureau of Reclamation is violating the federal Endangered Species Act. They argue that Reclamation has not met its commitment over the past two years to flush 427,000 acre-feet of water down the Snake River from Idaho reservoirs to aid salmon migration.

"What we are asking them is to do a scientifically valid study of how the operation of the entire river system can be managed to benefit salmon and steelhead, while still providing for all of the uses the system provides, especially irrigation," said Laird Lucas, an attorney for the environmental groups.

Semanko said environmentalists' real goal is to force Idaho to support breaching four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington.

In the legal notice, he said, the groups call for meeting flow targets at downstream dams that are physically impossible to meet even if all of Idaho's reservoirs were drained.

The outcome of a similar lawsuit in Oregon resulted in a federal judge ordering the Bureau of Reclamation to halt all delivery of Klamath Basin reservoir water to irrigators there in 2001.

"If this eco-extortion strategy is successful, Idaho will have Klamath times 10 on our hands," Semanko said.

Lucas said Semanko is trying to kill any substantive discussions by purposely exaggerating what environmentalists want.

"We are not saying the Endangered Species Act trumps state water rights," Lucas said. "We're saying they can be harmonized and work together. The problem is the water users are used to running the system without regard to the river or the fish."

Semanko's call for a break in talks on two key environmental initiatives have already produced an effect.

On Tuesday, the Custer County Farm Bureau chapter withdrew its support for the concept of a bill that would exchange economic development funding for wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds, said Rod Evans, the chapter president. Even if environmentalists withdraw the threat to sue, Evans is not sure his members already reluctant about wilderness will return to the table.

Fred Grant, a Nampa attorney moderating the Owyhee Initiative for the Owyhee County Board of Commissioners, said ranchers and local officials are still seeking a resolution to issues there with environmentalists.

"We've just held firm that the issues are separate," Grant said. "We understood from the beginning people were going to have to do what they had to do."

Crapo warned irrigation interests that killing the Boulder-White Cloud and Owyhee talks could lead to even more conflicts and legal threats to water and land use.

"We must not let meaningful collaborative efforts be destroyed by conflicts," he said.

Rocky Barker
Salmon Dispute Threatens Talks on Owyhees
The Idaho Statesman, September 11, 2003

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