Groups Won't Promise to Stay Out of Courtby Associated Press
Lewiston Tribune, November 8, 2003
BOISE -- Environmentalists told Sen. Michael Crapo on Friday that they still want to resolve key conservation issues through negotiation but they would not promise to stay out of court this winter on salmon recovery.
Bill Sedivy of Idaho Rivers United told Crapo's chief of staff, John Hoehne, that his and other organizations could not comply with the senator's request to hold off on a lawsuit until at least June.
Sedivy said the decision has not been made on whether to sue the government, alleging it has violated the Endangered Species Act by operating the upper Snake River dams in a way that denies sufficient water to preserve salmon runs downstream.
He pointed out that the state and federal governments, the Nez Perce Tribe and some water users are secretly discussing similar issues as part of the adjudication of water rights throughout the state.
"A negotation cannot work, or be fair, if some of the parties involved are working to reseolve some of the same key issues in a separate, confidential forum," Sedivy said.
But he also said Hoehne was assured that any lawsuit would not seek a change in the status quo for 2004, which calls for the diversion of no more than 427,000 acre-feet of water from above Hells Canyon Dam to fish migration.
He said that at least should provide irrigators and other water users some certainty about water conditions for the coming year.
Since the early 1990s, the Bureau of Reclamation has leased 427,000 acre-feet from the upper Snake to augment downstream flows for migrating fish. But four years of drought have left the government-set river flow targets unmet the past several years.
Friday's decision by environmentalists was only the latest development in a month of maneuvering with resource users. The negotiation effort initially seemed to quell the rhetoric but has lately escalated into accusations and recriminations.
Even before Friday's announcement, water users claimed the environmentalits had already reneged on the pledge to negotiate rather than litigate over management of the upper Snake River dams to benefit salmon.
The environmental groups on Oct. 30 asked the U.S. District Court in Portland to require the government to include the upper Snake River in its salmon recovery strategy.
"We are dismayed by their unscrupulous legal tactics," said Norm Semanko, president of the Coalition for Idaho Water. "Instead of avoiding litigation, they have intensified their efforts to control Idaho's water, with reckless abandon."
But Sedivy said the petition to U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland makes no demand for water, but only asks that the upper Snake River be part of the plan to preserve the Northwest fish runs.
"Our brief doesn't ask for more water from farmers, but it does ask the court to consider all the actions," said Sedivy.
In May, Redden ordered the government to rewrite its blueprint for salmon recovery within a year. Federal fish managers have never included operation of the upper Snake River dams in that strategy.
In August, Idaho Rivers United, the Idaho Conservation League, American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation threatened to sue, claiming the federal government has denied water needed for the fish in the way it operates the southern and eastern Idaho dams.
Semanko said the suit jeopardized production on 2 million acres of southern Idaho farmland and could cripple the state's $4 billion farm economy.
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