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Salmon Politics Puts the Focus on Eastern Idaho

by Bill Sedivy
Idaho Falls Post Register, December 14, 2003

Salmon advocates prefer to leave eastern Idaho irrigators alone.
But unless the federal government breaches fish-killing dams
on the Lower Snake River, water from the Upper Snake will be needed.

My assignment today is to answer this question: What do salmon advocates want from eastern Idaho irrigators to help facilitate the recovery of our state's endangered salmon and steelhead?

Really, we'd prefer to ask for nothing. But salmon politics has forced us to play a different hand.

Idaho's farmers and irrigators are not the cause of dwindling wild salmon and steelhead populations. The real culprits are four low-value dams on the Lower Snake River in eastern Washington.

These dams - Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor - cause too many Idaho salmon to perish en route to the sea. Baby salmon, depending on flows to get to the Pacific, face two deadly options with those dams in place - a slow, dangerous trip through warm, slackwater reservoirs or a ride to the ocean in a crowded barge or truck, where disease can spread like the flu on a school bus.

This year, even with ideal ocean conditions spurring higher returns, only three sockeye salmon came back to Redfish Lake. And return rates for Idaho's wild spring/summer chinook continue to hover at 2 percent, the bare minimum needed to arrest population declines caused by the Lower Snake dams.

Scientists say removing the Lower Snake dams would give Idaho's wild salmon and steelhead an 80 percent to 100 percent chance of recovery. Unfortunately, Idaho's politicians have worked hard to convince the government to ignore the odds and keep the Washington dams in place. So far, they've been successful.

In its 2000 Salmon Plan, the federal government agreed to leave the lethal dams intact. But in exchange, they called for improvement of Snake River flows.

However, the government has failed to implement its plan. Flow targets set out in the 2000 document haven't been met often enough, especially during critical periods when large numbers of salmon smolts are moving downriver. Other important actions haven't been delivered, either. Meanwhile, Idaho's salmon - and the people and ecosystems that depend on them - are still in trouble.

This leaves salmon advocates holding a hand we don't want to play but must. If the Lower Snake dams remain, the government must implement its own plan to increase flows to push baby salmon past the dams. That will likely require new legal action.

What does all this mean to eastern Idaho's farmers?

We don't know for sure. Current plans for operating the Upper Snake's dams and reservoirs did not examine the needs of salmon downstream. That analysis must be done.

Meanwhile, we believe a wiser, more flexible water management system can improve the overall health of the Snake while benefiting both salmon and irrigators. So until the lower Snake dams are removed, these are the kinds of things we'll be seeking:

With that said, farmers and irrigators should not bear the burden of restoring Idaho's wild salmon in the long term. Removing the Lower Snake dams - not moving Upper Snake water downstream - is what every Idaho resident should want for salmon and steelhead. It's what our fish need, and it would be best for eastern Idaho.

But until the Lower Snake dams come down, salmon advocates and Idaho water users must play the hand they've been dealt. The well-documented link between flow and salmon survival cannot be ignored.

by Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United.
Salmon Politics Puts the Focus on Eastern Idaho
Post Register, December 14, 2003

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